Asking NFL rookies to change positions is risky proposition
Rookie life is difficult enough without being asked to change positions
Jason Smith, Andre Smith and Brian Orakpo are all changing positions
For tackles, learning to play the opposite side isn't a smooth transition
Being a rookie in the NFL is hard. They have very little time between when their college seasons end and training to become a pro begins. After the combine, pro days and the draft itself, it's off to a new city for mini-camps, workouts and organized team activities. Add that they have to learn a new scheme while competing against skilled professionals who have been honing their craft for years and it is no wonder why so many rookies struggle.
Some NFL franchises complicate matters by adding another obstacle in the path to first-year success: the position switch. The Rams, Bengals, and Redskins are among those taking their high-priced youngsters out of their comfort zones. Some moves, like St. Louis moving the No. 2 overall selection, Jason Smith, to right tackle appear to be temporary. Others, like the Bengals having No. 6 pick Andre Smith make the same transition, appear to be permanent. The Redskins, on the other hand, are making the bold move of putting the 13th pick, defensive end Brian Orakpo, off the ball as an outside linebacker. Time will tell how long that change lasts.
Let's start with the big boys up front, Jason and Andre Smith. Switching an offensive lineman from one side of the line to the other is much more difficult than it sounds. I have seen solid players look like a fish out of water when forced to play the other side. But playing tackle is playing tackle and either way you are doing the same thing, right? Yes and no. The task at hand is essentially the same. The differences include the stance, weight transfer, hand placement and techniques necessary to get the job done.
Take Jason Smith. He spent the past three seasons gradually improving his game as a left tackle after making the move from tight end while at Baylor, and now the Rams want to mess with his progression by moving him to the other side?
Instead of pushing off with his right leg as he kicks and extends with his left in pass protection, Smith now must do the exact opposite. He used to have his left hand down and left leg back in his three-point stance and now it is the right-side limbs that have that duty. All the critical muscle memory that he built up and acquired during his time in college is pretty much lost as he attempts to get his body ready to do the same things in the opposite directions. For example, Smith is right-handed and used to have his more dominant arm inside when punching the defender and preventing him from beating him inside, the closest route to the quarterback. Now, his left arm has to handle that role.
The Rams say the main reason for the switch is so they can see former first-rounder Alex Barron, an underachiever thus far in his career, on the left side. My instincts tell me that is only part of it and they wouldn't risk their sizable investment (over $30 million guaranteed) in Smith just to check out Barron. The Rams probably don't want to have Smith responsible for protecting quarterback Marc Bulger's backside while going toe to toe against the best rushers the NFL has to offer. The potential exists that Smith could struggle, and they don't want him to lose his confidence.
However, moving him from the left side to the right carries the same potential pitfalls. What happens if Smith struggles out of the gate with all of the changes he has to make on the right side? Do they flip-flop him and Barron? Or worse yet, move Smith inside to guard? At least at left tackle Smith felt comfortable. At right tackle, he is a complete unknown. And though Smith will say all of the right things, I can't imagine he is happy with the move. Why would he be?
Last year rookie left tackles like Jake Long and Ryan Clady proved they were more than capable for the Dolphins and Broncos, respectively. Most teams have the strong tendency to slide the center to the left, which is usually the quarterbacks' blind side, when throwing the football. This creates a three-on-two situation in which the left tackle and left guard both have help in the form of another blocker watching and protecting their inside gap when walling off their defender. That means even if Smith were to struggle on the left side, the Rams would have more opportunities to give him the assistance he might need in the early going. On the right side, he can get help via a tight end or a running back, but that requires a more concerted effort on the part of the game planner, new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.
The argument from the Bengals regarding Andre Smith at right tackle is a bit more compelling but still flawed in the short term. Andre Smith's road-grader body type does not fit the typical mold of the linear left tackle with the fancy feet. Smith's greatest asset is his power in the running game, and the propensity of teams to run right gives him the potential to be the hammer the Bengals want lining up next to right guard Bobbie Williams. But I still think Smith has the natural ability to pass block -- something he did against the top-notch rushers in the SEC -- even if his body doesn't look the part. My first inclination would be to see if he can hack it on the left side. Even though the right tackle spot is every bit as important in my opinion, the premium money given to the guys who man the left side makes it imperative the Bengals find out sooner than later whether Smith can get the job done.
Then there is the exceedingly difficult transition Orakpo is making from a hand-in-the dirt pass-rusher to a linebacker playing off the line, who must key and diagnose what the offense is doing. This is not like making a college defensive end a 3-4 outside linebacker, which takes place with varying degrees of success on an annual basis. Instead Orakpo is playing in a 4-3 defense and will now have to look at the opposition from a different vantage point.
The question is not whether he is a good enough athlete to do it. Orakpo is a physical phenom of the first order. What needs to be answered is if he has the football acumen to make the move. The uncertainty associated with Orakpo's position switch makes the Redskins' first-rounder a project. The fact he will still be an edge rusher on obvious passing downs is good, but what about the other downs? There is nowhere to hide on an NFL field; offensive coordinators will find a way to test Orakpo's skills in coverage early and often this season.
With training camps opening later this month, we'll see soon enough whether or not Orakpo and the two Smiths can make the transition and enjoy prosperous rookie seasons.
NFL Truth & Rumors