That’s a big statement that might seem a bit too optimistic given that Smith has yet to play consistently at a truly elite level in the NFL, but it’s a claim that the numbers and film back up.
In 2012, Smith allowed only three sacks all year, but he also gave up pressure on quarterback Tony Romo on 6.0 percent of his snaps—a below-average mark. Offensive tackles are typically graded primarily on their pass protection, which they should be, but Smith was quietly solid as a run blocker.
Smith’s pass protection has improved in 2013—he’s the only starting lineman to not allow a sack this year—and he’s transformed into a dominant run blocker. The Cowboys are averaging 4.6 yards per carry as a team, but 5.0 YPC when Smith is at the point of attack.
Smith has been an above-average left tackle thus far in 2013, but admittedly not one of Pro Bowl quality just yet.
But there’s one humongous reason to think he’s going to quickly develop into that sort of player. I’ll touch on that in a bit, but let’s first take a quick look at some plays from the Cowboys’ Week 4 loss to the Chargers to see Smith in action.
Early in the contest, the Cowboys lined up in a true “Trips Left” formation. Smith was isolated on the left side with no tight end help.
As running back DeMarco Murray took the handoff, Smith was just getting engaged with the defensive end. Notice that Smith dropped back just a bit, almost as if he were pass blocking.
As the defensive end moved up the field, Smith used the defender’s natural momentum against him. He completely walled off the defensive end from the point of attack.
This is something that Smith has done extremely well so far in 2013: Instead of aggressively attacking defenders on all running plays, Smith is using near-flawless technique to make his blocks easier. It’s allowing him to keep his leverage, trading the knockout blocks for more useful “get in the way” blocks.
Later in the game, the Cowboys called for a “Tight End Trips Right” formation. Smith was again on an island—something that makes his numbers a bit more impressive since the coaches seem content letting him work alone without help on nearly every play.
Just after the snap, Smith again let his defender rush up the field a few yards, all the while maintaining his inside leverage.
The play was basically a mirror image of the first run, with Smith again using the defender’s natural movement against him. Smith, who reportedly took karate and worked specifically on his technique in the offseason, has made obvious improvements in terms of the angles he’s using in both facets of the game.
Late in the fourth quarter, the ‘Boys used a “Gun Trips Left” formation—one from which they’ve passed on over 99 percent of plays over the past three seasons (although that really didn’t matter at this point, down nine with just over five minutes remaining in the game).
Smith dropped into his pass set and engaged the defender thee yards behind the line. He was actually slightly off-balance at this point, although he was perfectly squared up to the rusher.
Smith was initially pushed back toward Romo just a bit, but he’s so strong that he yielded minimal even though he “got beat.”
Smith stuck with his defender throughout the play, protecting Romo for a total of 4.4 seconds before Romo eventually went down on the opposite side of the pocket.
One of the noticeable differences in Smith’s pass protection from last year to this season is how long he’s staying on his man. He’s providing more-than-adequate protection.
Tyron Smith’s Biggest Advantage
As mentioned, there’s one really big reason—one single number—that suggests Smith is going to be one heck of a left tackle: 22, as in his age.
Although NFL experience certainly helps players to some degree, I’ve found that age is far more important in predicting their success. A 24-year-old rookie receiver will generally outperform a 22-year-old second-year receiver, for example. That’s one reason that very young rookies, like Smith, often struggle early in their careers. If they don’t, it’s a great sign.
Looking at offensive tackles in terms of approximate value, I charted historic offensive line production since 1970 using Pro Football Reference’s top 30 ranked players at the position. The numbers on the left represent “percentage of peak play.” Offensive tackles have typically peaked right around age 28, so the rest of the graph is their collective play relative to that peak season, sorted by age.
There are a few points of interest here. First, notice how long it takes offensive tackles to develop. Most positions peak before age 28, and the climb typically isn’t so gradual.
Second, note that, as a whole, offensive tackles haven’t produced even 90 percent of their peak production at any age other than 28. Nonetheless, their window for production is huge. The typical offensive tackle has produced at a high level (over 80 percent of his peak) from ages 24 to 32. That’s a long time for any player.
To give you a better idea of how well Smith has played thus far in his young career, let’s look at his approximate value versus the average approximate value of the NFL’s top 30 offensive tackles of all time.
Although Smith’s approximate value dropped slightly in his second year, it was still well above that for the average top 30 offensive tackle at age 21. Note that there’s no data for 20-year-old offensive tackles because, of the top 30 in career approximate value, none were in the NFL at age 20.
The numbers really show you how dominant Smith has been when you consider his young age. Remember, these are the numbers for the top 30 offensive tackles of all time.
Offensive tackles take a long time to develop, but we’re seeing Smith grow right before our eyes. He’s been a quality left tackle thus far in his career, showing noticeable improvement from both a film and statistical standpoint, and the numbers suggest he’s just getting started.