INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts are trying to build something special.
If you want what you're building to last, then you better ensure you've got a solid foundation, and that's what the Colts are doing.
Over the last four offseasons, Colts general manager Chris Ballard has compiled a terrific group of young talent that the team has been able to build a roster around for the long term. From some slam-dunk draft picks and sneaky-good free-agent and waiver-wire moves, the Colts have a solid, young nucleus on their roster.
Gary Davenport of Bleacher Report recently acknowledged this fact, but his selection as the Colts most promising building block isn't often the first name to come to mind: Braden Smith. Davenport writes:
When it comes to the Indianapolis Colts offensive line, most of the glory goes to left guard Quenton Nelson. It's for good reason—Nelson has been arguably the best interior lineman in the league from the moment he set foot on an NFL field.
However, Nelson wasn't the only lineman drafted that year who has made an impact. In Round 2, the Colts selected Auburn guard Braden Smith. By the second month of his rookie season, Smith was forced into the lineup at right tackle.
Not only did he take well to the change, but he's since become one of the more underrated tackles in the NFL—and a player Colts head coach Frank Reich believes doesn't get the recognition he deserves.
"When we moved him, we knew we had a great run-blocker," Reich said, via Andrew Walker of the team's website. "... When he got here, you knew the pass-blocking needed some work, but he worked hard at that. So, that was going to be the big question moving him out to right tackle: 'How would he handle it?' He's just continued to get better and better."
While almost everyone knows about Colts Pro Bowlers/All-Pros Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner, they are already established names among the NFL landscape.
Smith has been the Colts' starting right tackle for two seasons already, but he has still flown under the radar.
It's important to note that the key word here — "promising" — means "showing signs of future success."
Smith is already a good football player, but there is the potential there for him to elevate into being widely considered as one of the better offensive tackles in the league.
If the best ability is availability, then Smith checks that box, as he has started 28 consecutive games for the Colts and has only missed one snap in that time.
He played 1,075 snaps in 2019, which was tied for the 10th-most in the NFL among offensive tackles.
Pro Football Focus ranked Smith as the seventh-best offensive tackle in the league with a grade of 79.8, which was good for the No. 4 rank among right tackles.
So how can Smith take a next step forward from here?
One of the biggest keys for tackles is pass protection, as the defense's most-dangerous pass rushers typically attack from the edge. According to PFF's metrics, Smith ranked 26th among tackles in pass-blocking and 12th among right tackles with a grade of 68.1 after allowing 46 pressures on the quarterback, which specifically ranked 14th among right tackles, including 30 hurries, nine hits and seven sacks.
A promising sign, however: many players who experience peaks and valleys in pass protection struggle with penalties because they're getting overwhelmed. That hasn't been the case for Smith, who had the fifth-fewest penalties among right tackles with five.
So while Smith's pass-blocking grade ranks in the bottom half of starting NFL tackles, and about middle of the pack for right tackles, that's actually pretty exciting considering it shows how much better he is still likely to get.
What already makes Smith a very good offensive lineman are his abilities in the run game
He was the third-ranked run-blocking tackle with a grade of 86.4. In 2019, the Colts ran the ball 88 times behind Smith or to his outside for 483 yards (5.5 avg.), four touchdowns and 12 runs of 10-plus yards.
Smith was one piece of a terrific run-blocking unit in 2019, and a group that was still very effective in protecting their quarterbacks.
PFF considered the Colts offense as the second-best in run blocking with a grade of 85.1, and 10th in rushing overall (78.7). They ranked 13th in pass blocking (75.1) and were tied for allowing the ninth-fewest sacks (32).
The Colts' offense ranked inside the top 10 in firsts downs by rush (second, 131), percentage of first downs by rush (second, 27.8), runs of 20-plus yards (fifth, 14), overall rushing (seventh, 133.1), runs of 40-plus yards (tied-ninth, three) and rushing touchdowns (tied-10th, 17).
While Smith was originally selected at No. 37-overall in 2018 to be the Colts' right guard of the future, he made a very smooth transition to right tackle and has helped the Colts' offensive line be one of the league's best ever since.
Since Smith joined the Colts' offensive line, they rank ninth in rushing (120.3 yards per game) and have allowed the third-fewest sacks (50). He's proven to be a solid piece of the foundation moving forward.
See some of the best photos of Indianapolis Colts offensive lineman Braden Smith.