After drafting him sixth overall in the 2009 NFL draft, the Cincinnati Bengals face the prospect of losing right tackle Andre Smith to free agency with the end of his rookie contract. The Bengals drafted Smith in the hope that he would turn into an elite offensive tackle, and while he hasn’t yet played left tackle in his career, the side tackles taken that high typically man, he has developed into one of the best right tackles in the whole league.
It’s hard to say if the Bengals really got value for drafting Smith. The 25-year-old has only started 35 of a possible 64 regular season games and five of those came during his first two seasons when he was only a fill-in. Early on Smith’s development was stagnant due to conditioning problems and injury issues. Much of the time he missed, he missed because of various ailments that held him back to the point he couldn’t be an effective player.
The Bengals were rewarded with their loyalty to Smith as he started most of last season before having a dominant year this season. Smith had a Pro Bowl caliber season and was a crucial piece for the Bengals’ offense. Along with Kevin Zeitler on the right side of the offensive line, Smith was heavily responsible for most of BenJarvus Green-Ellis‘ rushing yards and gave Andy Dalton consistently good pass protection. His sheer size and nimble feet have allowed him to excel when healthy in this league.
Knowing that he was a risky prospect coming out of college, the Bengals were eventually rewarded for their bold approach to the draft. They will need to be bold again this off-season because Smith can’t be expected to give the team a home-town discount. The Bengals didn’t really get value from the money they paid him during his rookie contract, but they stuck with him for his long-term ability opposed to his short-term production. If they let him walk, they would be compounding Smith’s early struggles by not rewarding their own good work with him.
Investing so heavily in a right tackle doesn’t seem so prudent, but Smith has the potential to maybe move over the Dalton’s blindside in the future and will at worst be a top right tackle. That is presuming that his health continues to allow him onto the field. The Bengals have no guarantee that Smith will continue to be fully healthy and productive, just like they didn’t when they drafted him. The possibility exists that his work rate and commitment will slack off if he gets a huge deal or his recent durability is the exception rather than the rule for his career.
The San Diego Chargers were burned when they invested big money in offensive tackle Jared Gaither last off-season, the Bengals will be hoping to avoid that scenario with Smith.