For years, the Colts have been searching for answers at right tackle, a spot that has seen trade targets, free agents, draft picks and developmental players fail to match Anthony Castonzo’s rock-solid consistency on the left side.
For a decade, Auburn has fielded one of the SEC’s most powerful offensive lines and simultaneously struggled to produce successful linemen at an NFL level.
Braden Smith could be the man to buck both of those trends.
Indianapolis initially envisioned Smith as a guard, but that was before injuries kicked him out to right tackle during training camp, before injuries and tragedy forced Smith into the starting lineup at right tackle two weeks ago, before Smith held up well against both the Patriots and Jets.
“Right now, it’s looking like Braden’s spot, with the way he’s playing,” Colts coach Frank Reich said.
Indianapolis took something of a risk when it selected Smith in the second round of April’s draft.
Not because a team should never take two guards in the top 37 picks, although general manager Chris Ballard took considerable criticism from the outside for just that after Smith’s name was called on draft day. Not because of his physical tools; Smith was one of the strongest, most explosive blockers available.
Because of his school.
Auburn has a long, proud history of producing Pro Bowl offensive linemen, but the pipeline dried up a decade ago.
The Tigers hired their current head coach, Gus Malzahn, as the offensive coordinator under Gene Chizik in 2009. Under Malzahn’s offensive guidance, Auburn has produced a Heisman Trophy winner, a national title, a BCS runner-up and nine consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher. A program like that should be a factory for NFL offensive linemen, but only five Auburn offensive linemen have been picked in the draft since 2009, and the Tigers’ top picks at the position have struggled.
Left tackle Greg Robinson, the No. 2 overall pick in 2014, was a colossal bust for the Rams and is now on his third team. Robinson’s replacement, Shon Coleman, was a 2016 third-round pick by Cleveland, failed to win a starting role and was shipped off to San Francisco in August for a seventh-round pick.
The problem is Auburn’s offense.
Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle scheme is nothing like an NFL offense. Auburn rarely huddles. Offensive linemen operate mostly out of a two-point stance. Play calls are a picture on a board, rather than a long list of words, and Auburn rarely makes checks or audibles at the line of scrimmage, a staple of NFL offensive line play.
And the differences don’t stop after the ball is snapped. Auburn’s passing game is built around short, quick throws, limiting a lineman’s true pass-blocking snaps to a dozen or so per game. The tempo is so fast that defenses do not have time to change calls, disguise blitzes or rotate fresh personnel into the fight.
“It’s two different styles,” Smith said. “At Auburn, all we did was run the ball. It’s a pretty simple offense. It’s not too complex, which is the point of it, so we could go fast.”
Auburn is emblematic of a larger problem for NFL talent evaluators.
So many college programs run some version of the spread that there are fewer ready-made offensive linemen available in the draft than ever before. Programs that run pro-style offenses — schools such as Wisconsin, Iowa, Stanford — have become premier spots to find help on the line. The Colts went to one of those farms to get first-round pick Quenton Nelson; Notre Dame has produced five first- or second-round picks on the offensive line in the past five years.
Indianapolis believed Smith’s spread-offense background would not limit him as it has limited Robinson and Coleman. When the Colts finished evaluating Smith, the team felt confident that his skills were not “scheme-dependent,” according to director of college scouting Morocco Brown.
The physical gifts were clearly in place.