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Tanzel Smart can prove he belongs in the Rams’ lineup without Ndamukong Suh around anymore

Every team NFL needs a big dude who holds down the middle, and the Rams have that in Smart.

Los Angeles Rams v Oakland Raiders Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Tanzel Smart probably doesn’t have many fond memories of last season, even though his Rams made it all the way to the Super Bowl. He went from playing quite a bit, and even starting four games, as a rookie sixth-round pick in 2017, to not recording a single statistic while active for just two games last season.

I don’t know how much that had to do with the fact that the Rams signed Ndamukong Suh to take over for Smart as the starting “nose tackle,” but it does seem curious to me that he was rarely even on the game day roster. Even in the two games in which he was active, Smart only played a handful of snaps.

Smart is particularly puzzling to me because I thought he played pretty well when I watched his rookie film. Now, we all know that Suh wasn’t just a nose tackle. I’m not sure how well Smart could have handled moving around the line the way that Suh did last season. But solely judging him as a nose tackle, I thought there was a lot to like about how Smart played.

And now that Suh has moved on to the Buccaneers, the Rams once again have an open starting nose tackle spot.

I don’t see any reason why Smart can’t work himself back into the lineup.

At 6’1 and 295 pounds, Smart isn’t the biggest nose tackle, but he plays with good leverage, which makes him hell on offensive lines. It doesn’t matter whether Smith gets singled or doubled, the guy does a good job of anchoring down and refusing to be pushed around.

He also has a pretty quick get-off at times that allows him to get some push of his own. Smart also gets good extension with his arms when taking on blocks to keep offensive linemen off of him. He didn’t get overwhelmed very often on film because he always stayed low and kept a good base with his feet.

Smart probably won’t ever be a big sack guy, but he is still pretty athletic for a nose tackle. He has the ability to push the pocket with his power rushes, and he does a good job of working to an edge once he recognizes pass blocking.

I think he has room to improve on escaping off of the block once he has gotten some push and worked to an edge, but he is still young, and as he heads into his third season the 24-year-old still has a ton of upside.

For all we know, Smart may have used last season to work on improving his pass-rush skills.

And he certainly could have improved this offseason as well. I would imagine after not playing much last season, Smart has to be motivated to earn himself some playing time this preseason. How he performs will be the key to whether he writes his redemption story this season.

I tell you what, he sure looked much improved in his first preseason appearance against the Raiders. He had more lateral quickness and wiggle than I saw on his rookie tape.

Yeah, I know it was just the preseason, but he was getting after it, and I, for one, was encouraged to see his growth as a player. It was also interesting to see the Rams play him at three-technique instead of nose tackle. If he can move around a little up front, and it appears that he can, that versatility could help him break into the Rams’ rotation if he’s not in the starting lineup.

No matter what anybody tries to tell you, every team still needs big boys on defense to hold it down in the middle. Those guys are sometimes overlooked these days with the NFL becoming such a passing league. But no one seems to miss having a good run-stuffing nose tackle until they don’t have one.

Suh’s departure created an opening for someone to step up to the plate and take over that job. Smart looked to be on track to be a fine nose tackle as a rookie, but somewhere things got sidetracked. Now he has the opportunity to once again show his team that it can count on him. If he can finish this preseason strong, I believe he will be able to get back in the mix, and his production will soar.

Confidence level: Moderate