USC offensive lineman Tyron Smith turned 20 years-old just this past Sunday, on December 12. He is a 285-pound offensive tackle NFL prospect that has only played on the right side during his time as a Trojan. He's having a rather excellent junior season despite USC's having a down year, and when you're as naturally gifted as Smith is, the NFL will most certainly come calling.
The NFL has arrived with interest piqued, and Smith is dolling himself up for the occasion. According to a report from ESPN's Bruce Feldman, Smith has decided to forgo his senior season and enter the 2011 NFL Draft.
Smith is undoubtedly attempting to take advantage of the fact that 2011 will be a down year for offensive tackles. In fact, there have been whispers for weeks that NFL talent evaluators view Smith as the nation's best tackle prospect. He very well could be the first tackle off the board when the 2011 NFL Draft gets underway in April, and he's already drawing comparisons to soon-to-be two-time Pro Bowl tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson from reputable analysts such as Wes Bunting of the National Football Post.
Let's just quickly recap to keep this thing in perspective: a 20-year-old, 285-pound athlete that has never played left tackle as a collegian might be the first left tackle selected in the NFL Draft. So... confirmed: It's a weak year for offensive tackles. But this also highlights one of the many issues with the college draft process - kids too young and too raw continue to gamble with their futures to capitalize on the inherent advantages of their current circumstances. Leaving early doesn't doom Smith to failure, but it certainly leaves him far less prepared for the task at hand than he could have been.
There's no doubt that Smith is talented. He's an outstanding athlete, has a great frame that will allow him to get bigger for the rigors of professional football, and in the right system, with good coaching, could become a truly excellent blind side protector. His talents and potential cannot be denied. Even if you're the most ardent supporter of Smith's gifts - he has many of them - there's also little doubt that he'd benefit greatly from delaying his inevitable first-round selection and staying at USC for another season. That opinion, too, is held by many, including SB Nation's own Dan Kadar.
Kadar recently put together a list of 10 current college juniors that should not enter the 2011 NFL Draft. Yep, you guessed it - Smith made the list. Writes Kadar:
A lot of people are high on Smith, and it's easy to see why. He's highly talented and athletic for an offensive tackle. The problem is that he's not powerful enough for the NFL and he's been playing on the right side. If Smith could move to left side for 2011 and get up to 300 pounds, he could become the No. 1 overall pick in 2012.
That last part is speculation, obviously, but it's not a huge stretch (particularly if Andrew Luck leaves Stanford this season): right now, because NFL teams still draft for need far too often, Smith - despite his shortcomings - could easily be a top 20 pick, and may even sneak into the Top 10. A team picking him that early will be gambling, but it's still a distinct possibility. Were he to rescind his current decision, go back to USC and add on even ten pounds of muscle, he'd be Lane Kiffin's starting left tackle in 2011, and an extremely early pick in 2012 with a good season. Guys do it all the time; Smith is capable of that type of leap.
Instead, he's gambling like so many underclassmen before him. Particularly at the offensive tackle position, early entrants have struggled to acclimate to the NFL game - no easy feat for even the most experienced collegiate lineman. Chris Williams left Vanderbilt as a redshirt junior, was selected in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft, has dealt with numerous injuries, and now plays left guard on one of the league's worst offensive lines.was the sixth overall pick in 2009 out of Alabama, has also struggled with injuries, and has just one start on his NFL CV. Anthony Davis left Rutgers early for NFL riches, was drafted eleventh overall this past April, and has struggled mightily at right tackle for a disappointing team. All three of these players were considered more NFL-ready than Tyron Smith.
It will take a patient NFL team with a strong culture to get the most out of Smith. Typically, teams picking at or near the top of the NFL Draft are neither patient nor evolved to the point where their culture is stable enough to sustain raw talent. With more seasoning at the college level, Smith would better prepare himself to rise above those needs and succeed anywhere. By relying on the circumstances to fuel his decision, he's bound himself more firmly to the circumstances of the team that chooses him as he attempts to become a quality professional. This is not smart decision-making; quite literally, it is gambling.
In an age of neurosis surrounding "bust" draft picks, the solution for NFL teams is simple: don't gamble. It has to start with the teams. As long as clubs continue to draft based on potential, and force guys into large roles long before they're ready, those teams will continue to underperform, and players like Tyron Smith will continue to take their chances and leave school early. Chris Williams, Andre Smith and Anthony Davis have made a lot of money, and they've done little to help their football teams. Tyron Smith could very well find himself in the same boat, as could the team that eventually drafts him.
The system is broken - but you don't need me to tell you that; the system will remain broken, and the only entity that can truly fix it is NFL teams, by making smarter decisions on draft day. Here's hoping that the highly talented Smith isn't the latest casualty of that broken system.