Andre Smith has simply slid underneath most people's notice; an astonishing accomplishment considering his size and high-visibility as the team's starting right tackle. Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones, with only eight snaps played between them last season(all by Eifert), drew significant attention as players returning from season-ending injuries. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall, after having spent the entire offseason last year rehabilitating, enjoyed an entire offseason this year training and improving. How will they respond?
Smith, who suffered a torn triceps against the Houston Texans on Nov. 23 last season, was cleared to practice two weeks ago. Indeed, he didn't practice during spring sessions, but worked with trainers to improve his conditioning. Smith has inspired dedication during towards rebuilding his body, similar to Andrew Whitworth. According to spring reports, Smith's workouts were reaching legendary status and offseason pictures showed a man that lost 23 pounds, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
"When I've been injured, I've come back overweight. I'm not the same ‘Dre," Smith said earlier this year. "I'm more mature, I'm older. It's just my age."
Apparently, there's more to it than that.
Smith wants to be healthier, and if injuries become an issue (let's face facts, he's a durability concern), he wants to recover quicker. However, his greatest motivation, Jim Owczarski with the Cincinnati Enquirer writes, is that he's tired of being mediocre.
He insists the re-dedication had nothing to do with his impending free agency, or the fact that the last time he was in this position he didn't get the type of offers he hoped for on the open market before re-signing with the Bengals.
"No, none of that came into mind," he said. "I just want to be better than what I've been in the past. That's my motivation."
Smith's three-year deal expires after the 2015 season; there is a belief Cincinnati is willing to move into another phase of roster building after this year; their first two draft picks were spent on offensive tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher. It's the closing window being referred to by veterans with this collection of players.
Two years ago, Smith spent nearly two months in free agency without generating any serious interest. He returned to Cincinnati on April 2013, during draft weekend to negotiate a deal. If something wasn't reached soon, the Bengals, with maximum leverage, had targeted Florida State offensive tackle Menelik Watson. A last-second agreement was reached and instead of drafting Watson, the Bengals selected North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard.
"(Smith) waited until the last possible second," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander right after a three-year agreement was reached during the second round of the 2013 NFL draft. "Mike (Brown) brought him in the draft room and showed him we had (Menelik) Watson on the top of our board. He said, ‘It's a good thing you signed.'"
At one point there were significant concerns related to his work ethic and durability, having missed 21 of 48 games during his first three seasons. Bengals coaches tried using the media to motivate Smith, with Marvin Lewis famously questioning Smith's professionalism. "Andre's going to figure out how to become a pro and do things the way it's asked to do all the time," said Lewis in August 2010. "Hopefully he continues to do it in a timely fashion. Because otherwise, I'm not going to go through this year in and year out."
It wasn't until a player-organized offseason training session during the 2011 lockout when things began clicking. When Smith arrived in Cincinnati that year, rehabilitating from a surgically-repaired ankle, he walked up to Whitworth and the starting left tackle reflected: "The first thing he said to me was, 'Whit, it's my time. Time for me to step up.'
And he did.
"Last year Andre really grew into the player we drafted and expected to have," Lewis said in August 2012, a year after Smith made his comments to Whitworth. "Unfortunately it got delayed and sideways (during his rookie season) for different reasons with the holdout and an immediate injury and so forth. He really has taken a lot of steps in maturity... You just saw the personality come out of a guy that was picked where he was picked in the draft. The total man - all the qualities of a first-round pick, particularly a high first-round pick - they began to emerge throughout last year. He's kind of picked up where he's left off. He's had a really good, productive offseason. That's a great positive step for him."
Smith's story has been one of frustration among fans, coaches and teammates. Selected in the sixth-round of the 2009 NFL draft, Smith simply hasn't become the dominating offensive tackle he was expected to become. When asking random folk about Smith, most are comfortable with allowing his contract to expire to invite a new era at right tackle. Second-round pick Jack Fisher out of Oregon has worked at both tackle positions. Granted, Smith's career, professionalism and motivation has slowly improved over the course of his career in Cincinnati. One wonders however, is the writing already on the wall?