BGA: Scouting Jason Smith

Bent , TheJetsBlog.com

Last night, the Jets and Rams completed a trade which sent disappointing and overpaid right tackle Wayne Hunter to the Rams for the arguably even more disappointing and overpaid right tackle Jason Smith.

Having reviewed several Rams games already this offseason for the Expendables series, Smith had been a guy who stood out as having had some struggles. Maybe a closer inspection of the film will reveal some promise, but we’ll get to that in due course. For the time being, I’ve been scratching my head over this one.

After the jump, I’ll be looking at salary cap issues associated with the move, weighing up some of the practical considerations that may have gone into the Jets’ though process in making this deal and providing detailed analysis of how Smith has played in the preseason, along with some numbers and analysis from his three years in the league so far.

Salary Cap Issues

Based on the information available about Smith’s contract (mostly from Brian McIntyre), we can determine the following about the two years remaining on the restructured monster contract he signed when he was drafted by the Rams with the second pick:

- His salary for 2012 is $4m, which is fully guaranteed
– He also has potential incentives of $1m based on playing time, wins and playoff success
– If he earns any of these incentives, they will count against the 2013 cap
– His contract will void if he plays over 31% of the snaps in 2012
– If his contract voids, the Jets could get a 2014 compensatory pick if anyone else signs him
– If his contract doesn’t void, he is set to earn $12m in 2013
– None of the money in 2013 is guaranteed, so he can be released with no cap implications
– His deal could also be restructured at that point

Since Wayne Hunter was due to earn $2.45m the Jets used up $1.55m of net 2012 cap room by making this move. The Jets also save $4m in 2013 and $3m in 2014, which have to be accounted for in their future cap charges, even though it was unlikely Hunter was ever going to earn these non-guaranteed sums. At the same time, this means we need to account for Smith’s $12m in next year’s cap calculation, although there’s no chance of him earning this. Ultimately, the Jets are $8m further over the 2013 cap than they already were, although their actual cap flexibility beyond 2013 is pretty much unaffected, other than the fact they have $1.55m less to potentially carry over. It might mean that more media members fall into the trap of believing the Jets are in cap hell, but they still should have the flexibility to keep the core together and retain flexibility.

Some questions arise. For example, some will be asking if using up this $1.55m leaves them with enough cap room to sign any other players. The Jets still have over $4m of cap room, but bear in mind that when you sign a player, you will also be removing another player from the roster. So, if you sign a guy for the minimum and remove a player from the roster who is also earning the minimum, then the cap cost is nothing. Minimum salaries do increase as players get older, but even if the Jets replaced an undrafted rookie with an older veteran, the net cap cost would only be a couple of hundred thousand dollars at most.

Also, the Jets have been pretty lucky with not having too many people land on injured reserve (which can eat into your cap room) so far this season, so perhaps they budgeted for a couple of million to cover them against that eventuality and now feel comfortable enough to spend that money and stay within budget.

Another question is why does Smith’s contract get voided when he reaches a certain playing time threshold? It looks like it’s been negotiated so that Smith had a chance to hit free agency in 2013, which would obviously give him all the leverage to get a contract extension from the Rams before the end of the 2012 season. If an injury had prevented him from reaching that threshold, then the fact his 2013 cap number is high would give him added protection and leverage. Obviously the expectation was that he’d be an elite player at that point of his career. Instead he’s been a disappointment and has already negotiated his salary down from $10m this year – receiving the guarantee in return.

Naturally, this means it is an effective contract year for Smith, which might have been one of the reasons the Jets made the deal.

Unless Smith proves to be an upgrade over Hunter, the deal doesn’t really make any sense from a contract perspective. One possible upside is that they could potentially get a compensatory pick in 2014 if Smith’s contract voids and then he gets picked up by another team (as suggested by Jason from NYJetsCap.com), but that wouldn’t be enough to justify making the deal.

What is clear is that Hunter’s confidence was so shot that his days with the Jets were numbered. Obviously the vitriol from the fans has been too much for him to take and the decision to allow him to remain on the team and collect a guaranteed salary for 2012 has come back to bite them. There were more than just financial considerations that went into that decision – principally a concern over how the locker room would react to him being cut or forced to reduce his pay and a desire to look like they do the right thing by their players, but also an assessment of the lack of potential replacements available. All those reasons made sense at the time and they obviously weren’t expecting things to go south so dramatically, but the end result is that that money was a sunk cost, because he was on his way out.

Had they cut Hunter, they’d be on the hook for all of his $2.45m anyway, so the net cost of finding a replacement, even if they got a minimum salary guy, wouldn’t have been far short of the $4m they are going to be paying Smith. Could they have found a replacement for less than the $1.55m they ultimately lose out on? Some people had been suggesting that Gosder Cherilus could be a possible trade option, but he earns $2.3m, so if they cut Hunter and signed Cherilus, the Jets would be almost $1m worse off and down a draft pick or player. Cherilus wasn’t particularly good in 2011, but played well in 2010, so the Jets would be gambling that he’d see a return to form, which – for a player coming from a zone blocking system – might have taken some time.

When you look at it like this, the financial/asset risk behind getting Smith instead perhaps makes more sense. EDIT: It’s subsequently been revealed that the Rams paid Smith a pre-trade bonus so that his salary for the year is exactly the same as what Hunter was set to earn, so a lot of the above analysis is now redundant. Ultimately the Jets are $1.55m better off than previously thought. It’s going to come down to what Smith can provide the Jets, though, so let’s start to think about that.

Who is Jason Smith?

When the Rams drafted Smith with the second pick of the 2009 draft, he was expected to become one of the league’s elite tackles. Three seasons into his career, he has been limited to 29 games by concussions, although he is understood to be healthy at the moment. This has obviously slowed his progress. Obviously he’s been a disappointment as the second pick, but his numbers when he has played are not too bad. The bigger issue is how much he’s reportedly struggling at the moment.

As a rookie, he played just three full games and half of four others but otherwise looked pretty promising. 2010 was his only full season and he played every snap. This season was blighted by inconsistency as he had a few really good games but more really bad ones. Although he graded out well below average he wasn’t right near the bottom of the league like Hunter was last year. In 2011, he lasted just five and a half games and was struggling. However, his last couple of performances were positive and he did only give up two sacks and two QB hits. So, on the basis of his three years in the league, he has been below average, but not one of the league’s worst tackles – which should make him an upgrade over Hunter…right?

Unfortunately, his return to the field this year has not been encouraging. Barry Richardson – a tackle who graded out considerably worse than Hunter last year – has basically won the starting job by default because Smith has been performing so poorly in camp. That’s not a good sign and Smith hasn’t been getting good reviews for his play.

I spoke to an analyst (Khaled Elsayed) from ProFootballFocus to see if he had any thoughts on the move. He said that Smith did look pretty good when he was a rookie, so he does have talent. It was more mental issues that seemed to affect his play and you never knew whether he’d have a good game or a bad game from week to week. He said that was the opposite of Wayne Hunter, who would string together some bad performances, then seem to find himself and start playing reasonably well for several weeks in a row, before losing it again and finding himself back in a rut.

This leads you to wonder whether it is effort that is holding Smith back. Rams fans are reportedly less than impressed with his attitude and he has a reputation for not wanting to learn new things. However, Khaled made the point that the Rams didn’t exactly help him by constantly changing his position from left tackle to right tackle and back again. He also notes that a lot of linemen have gone to St. Louis in recent years and got worse, so maybe the Jets have some confidence they can tap into some of his potential better than the Rams were able to.

Another factor is that Smith comes to the Jets who have plenty of other good players on their line, whereas the whole line was struggling when Smith was with the Rams. So, the line wasn’t blocking well as a unit and the chances of him getting any help were perhaps slim. Khaled suggests that the Jets probably expect Austin Howard to falter at some point, so while paying a $4m salary to a swing tackle seems excessive, they probably expect him to be starting eventually.

I’d also note that Smith’s struggles this preseason can perhaps be tempered by the fact that he is playing in a brand new scheme with an offensive coordinator (our old friend Brian Schottenheimer) whose system is notoriously difficult to pick up. That’s perhaps not the best thing for a player who apparently was already making mental mistakes. These mental errors and the fact that he suffered from changing positions remind me of Vladimir Ducasse’s struggles so far and Ducasse is responding really well to Sparano’s more straightforward scheme. That being the case, perhaps Smith is a better fit than we realized.

2012 Preseason

So, let’s look at Jason Smith’s three appearances so far this preseason. Remember, he hasn’t received positive reviews for these displays, but perhaps we’ve rationalized some of the possible reasons for this above. We might even see some positive signs. Mostly, I’ll be looking for differences between Smith and Hunter, as well as any obvious weaknesses in his game.

Week One – Indianapolis

Smith entered the game late in the first quarter. He didn’t look too bad in run blocking early on, although he did allow the DE to spin away from this block on the edge and assist on a tackle in the backfield. He bounced back from that to pull to the outside and make a good block to set up a nine yard run over the right side. His worst moment saw his man (Jerry Hughes) blow by him completely untouched for an easy sack on third down in the red zone. Hughes almost jumped offsides and this might have factored into how slowly Smith got into his stance. On the last series, Smith moved his feet well as he tried to make a reach block going to the left, but ended up knocked onto his back because he lost his balance. He was also beaten easily by an outside speed rush, but the pass rusher took too wide of an angle and the quarterback was able to get off a quick throw.

On the whole, Smith didn’t look too bad in this one, although the sack was particularly embarrassing. He definitely performed better than Richardson, who got destroyed on a couple of plays. You can see the athleticism and technically he doesn’t look as bad as advertised – definitely more polished than Howard. His footwork seems pretty good and he was able to counter some pass rushing moves well. I would note that – despite the fact Brian Schottenheimer is not renowned for doing so – he did get some help in the form of double teams and chip blocks.

Week Two – Kansas City

The offense didn’t look as good with the second unit in, but that wasn’t necessarily Smith’s fault. He had a couple of minor issues in the running game – a missed cut block, letting his man get off his block to get in on the tackle – but overall didn’t do too badly. They ran behind him for a short touchdown and he held his block well on another touchdown run. His worst moment saw another old friend, Ropati Pitoitua, beat him cleanly on the inside, although Potty missed the tackle and the runner bounced to the outside and picked up a first down. In pass protection, the nearest he came to giving up a pressure was when he was driven back into the quarterback, who took off and scrambled for a first down. Pressure was also coming from the other side on the play, otherwise he’d have had time to step up and throw.

Once again, Smith didn’t fare too badly in this one, although you might expect him to flash more dominance against backups. They did give him some help on the inside in pass protection, but the fact he didn’t give up any pressure is encouraging.

Week Three – Dallas

One thing I noticed from this game was a play where Smith took his man and drove him well out of the play, but the runner got stuffed in the backfield because someone else screwed up. Something like this happened a handful of times over the course of the three games. This is where you can start to wonder whether pairing him with some more talented and consistent players could turn that kind of play into a key block that sparks a successful run – or where if he does make a mistake, there might still be room for the runner to get back to the line of scrimmage rather than being swarmed under.

Smith did have some issues in this one. He reacted to an inside move, but then the pass rusher span to the outside and got away from him for what should have been a sack (but he missed the tackle). Also, he was tossed aside by Marcus Spears who stuffed a running play up the middle. His best moment was probably a driving run block, where he initially double teamed a defensive lineman and then drove him to the second level.

Overall Observations

While Smith didn’t play well enough against backups to stand out as someone who should definitely be a starter, at no point in any the three games was he overmatched like Hunter was against the Giants starters. In fact, he was also more consistent and did more positive things than Howard has this preseason.

I noticed the athleticism and strength that made Smith an elite prospect in the first place and he played extremely hard. He finishes his blocks and plays to the whistle, on several occasions doing the sort of thing you’d never normally notice like driving a pass rusher well out of the play once the pass had already been released so he had no chance to chase down the receiver. I did notice he ended up on the floor quite a lot, suggesting his technique wasn’t always perfect and also the concentration lapses he is known for were also apparent.

It’s very difficult to fairly evaluate backups playing against backups when comparing them with starters playing against starters. Richardson had more negative issues than Smith did, for example, but if their roles were reversed, I’m sure Smith would have struggled more and Richardson might have been more dominant. He definitely performed considerably better than Stephon Heyer, Robert Griffin and Hunter did as the second string tackle across from Howard in each of the last three games.

Howard’s confidence is high at the moment and he looks set to start the opener. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Smith challenging for the starting role, especially if Howard has some struggles. That is practically inevitable with the pass rushers they are facing early on in the year.

Conclusions

I went to bed last night really scratching my head over this move. Normally when you make one of these deals where both players will probably benefit from a change of scenery, you don’t really have anything to lose, but in this case the Jets have surrendered some cap flexibility. Clearly the Jets must feel comfortable with this, but we’ll have to hope it doesn’t come back to bite them. EDIT: As noted above, the Jets didn’t surrender any cap flexibility after all and this was a cap-neutral swap of two guys needing a change of scenery.

I was concerned that Smith does not represent any kind of upgrade over Hunter based on the reports of his preseason play, but a look back to his record when he has played suggests he has it in him to be better and a closer look at his performance in preseason suggests he isn’t playing that badly. If he can respond well to a simpler system and benefit from being surrounded by better players in a contract year, then this is a move that could pay off. I’m not sure what the plan is for 2013, but for now, I don’t think the Jets have planned that far ahead.

After Austin Howard’s performance last week, I feel a lot more comfortable about the Jets’ ability to scheme around any perceived weakness at the right tackle position. After reviewing the film, I’m not completely confident in Smith’s ability to live up to his salary, but some of the factors involved in his struggles with the Rams give me a small amount of hope. With any luck, he could provide solid cover for Howard and the Jets will not be in trouble if he ends up starting. Consider me cautiously pessimistic but by no means completely resigned to failure.

Welcome aboard, Jason. Let’s see you earn your salary.

Bonus Link: When the Jets signed Aaron Maybin back in 2011, I scouted him for BGA here and found myself rationalizing the move in much the same way. Go back and read what I wrote at the time because (ignoring the financial side of things) I feel much the same way after reviewing the film on Smith.