INDIANAPOLIS — Morocco Brown had an inkling that Braden Smith could be a solid NFL tackle before he ever became a member of the Indianapolis Colts.
Five weeks into the 2018 regular season, Brown — the Colts' Director of College Scouting — was proven right.
A second-round pick in last year's draft out of Auburn, the initial plan was to give Smith an opportunity to develop behind veteran Matt Slauson as the Colts' right guard of the future, but circumstances would lead to Smith getting the start at right tackle Week 5 against the New England Patriots.
And he hasn't budged from that spot ever since.
A people-mover in the run game who continued to show great strides in pass protection, Smith now is enjoying an entire offseason of work at the right tackle position, where he can settle in and really start to fine-tune his craft heading into his second NFL season in 2019.
"(I just have) a good understanding of the offense now," Smith said. "Instead of focusing on the big picture, you can focus on the finer details now with more technique and smaller things."
Smith excelled at the right guard position at Auburn, where he appeared in 54 games with 41 consecutive starts from 2014-17. He was an AP/CBS/SB Nation First-Team All-American in 2017, and winner of the SEC's Jacobs Blocking Trophy.
Though he did have some experience sliding over to tackle early in his college career, the 6-foot-6, 315-pound Smith was viewed as a promising guard prospect in the NFL by Colts general manager Chris Ballard, despite the fact Brown was constantly in his ear about Smith's possibilities as a tackle. Indy would select Smith with the 37th-overall pick in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
"During the draft process Morocco Brown kept (saying), 'Man, I'm telling you this guy can be a tackle. He can absolutely be a tackle,'" Ballard recalled earlier this year. "'Rock, no man. He's a guard. This guy is going to be a great guard.'"
Bitten by the injury bug at tackle throughout training camp, however, the Colts gave Smith some summer practice reps on the outside, and he even started the team's second preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens at right tackle. But the plan remained in place that Smith would continue to learn behind Slauson before eventually taking over at right guard.
But then, Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals, starting right tackle J'Marcus Webb went down with a season-ending hamstring injury.
Two weeks later, Joe Haeg, who had taken over at right tackle, suffered an ankle injury and was placed on injured reserve.
A little more than a week after that, Denzelle Good, the Colts' third starter at right tackle in four weeks, was excused from the team to be with his family after the tragic shooting death of his brother, Overton, in South Carolina.
Now facing a short week and going on the road to take on the defending AFC champion New England Patriots on Thursday Night Football, the Colts finally turned to Smith to take over at right tackle.
In 83 snaps that night, Smith would allow just one quarterback pressure; his 80.1 Pro Football Focus grade that night was Indy's second best offensive mark, and tops among all offensive linemen.
"Honestly, I felt pretty comfortable at it, surprisingly," Smith said of his first regular-season action at right tackle last year. "I mean, the first New England game, the first game I really played a full game, that was the Thursday night game, so hadn't quite had any live practice; it was all walkthroughs. So I was kind of like, 'Alright, let's see what happens.' And then you get those first few plays down and then you're like, 'Alright. I'm good to go.'"
The Colts' offensive line — and the offense in general — really started to click the following week, as starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo returned after missing the first five games of the season with a hamstring injury.
With a lineup primarily consisting of Castonzo, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Mark Glowinski (who took over for an injured Slauson) and Smith, the Colts by the end of the season had one of the best offensive lines in football, having allowed just 18 sacks, the fewest in the NFL. Indy also had back-to-back 200-yard rushing performances in Weeks 7 and 8, while running back Marlon Mack ran for a franchise playoff record 148 yards in the team's Divisional Round victory over the Houston Texans.
Smith continued to improve with each week. By the end of the regular season, he was rated by PFF as the second-best rookie offensive tackle, as he allowed just 28 pressures over 520 pass protection snaps. He was named to the Pro Football Writers of America, PFF and NFL.com All-Rookie Teams.
"I don't know if we could ever have thought that he could have been this successful this early," Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said of Smith late last year. "What he gives you in the run game is he's just a powerful man. One of the main reasons why I think the run game really got going was because when he stepped in there – because he can just really move people in there. He does it differently than a lot of tackles that I have ever been around. He just moves guys and gets guys displaced from their area. So it opens up holes for the back. Then he has really held his own in pass protection."
With Nelson earning First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors over at left guard, head coach Frank Reich said Smith was "the best-kept secret in the NFL" last season.
"This guy – rightly so Quenton has gotten a lot of attention — (but) Braden has played lights out," Reich said. "When we moved him we knew we had a great run blocker. I mean, you just watch his college tape, you knew he was a great run blocker. 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."
"As the season went on he just kept getting better," Ballard said of Smith. "I kind of giggle — I love Quenton and Quenton knows I love him — but the world was ignoring Braden Smith. Quenton Nelson is playing his tail off, but Braden Smith is playing good football, too."
With all five starters along the offensive line returning in 2019, Smith can now focus solely on the right tackle position. He has new offensive line coaches in Chris Strausser and Klayton Adams — as well as the legendary Howard Mudd, who has returned to be the Colts' senior offensive assistant — working with him every day on refining his techniques so that he can be even stronger moving forward.
"You can tell in Braden's demeanor, the confidence that he has," Reich said. "The whole beginning of the year last year he had to be … questioning, 'Can I really do this? Can I play this position at this level?' I think what he did last year just really set him and us up where we got the confidence in him, he has got the confidence in himself. He works extremely hard and I just think is going to continue to get better."