As we power through the summer toward training camps, Chris Burke will highlight players that interest him this season for various reasons. This week, he’s looking at three players who might regress in 2013.
This all boils down to expectations.
Through two-plus seasons after being taken No. 6 overall in the 2009 draft, Andre Smith looked like he might be a massive bust. Then, rather suddenly, the light came on -- Smith closed the 2011 season with several solid performances, then in 2012 played as one of the NFL's elite right tackles. The Bengals rewarded him with a three-year, $18 million contract.
So what exactly are they paying for?
The Bengals might not even be sure. There were rumblings from the close of last season on up until Smith re-signed on draft weekend that the Bengals were preparing to move on without the former Alabama star. Peter King wrote in early that March that "Andre Smith should come with a warning label. Something like, 'Huge money is hazardous to this player's greatness.' Talked to several teams scared of Smith. They remember his weight problems early in his Cincinnati tenure, and they fear what a big signing bonus would do to his desire."
And that's the starting point for Smith's inclusion on our list of players who might decline next season. Several teams around the league (and possibly even the Bengals themselves) deemed Smith a potential contract-year wonder -- an all-too-common occurrence of a player who turns in a brilliant year as he's about to hit free agency, then takes a step back after landing a big contract.
Smith earned those worries through his first years in the league, as he struggled to keep his weight down and could not stay healthy.
Back in 2011, when league labor issues cost teams huge chunks of their offseason workouts, Cincinnati offensive line coach Paul Alexander said that "an extended lockout would be bad for Andre Smith." Alexander mostly was addressing the need to get Smith in and working on his technique, but the fear that Smith will balloon up has to be in the back of Cincinnati's coaching staff's minds.
Marvin Lewis insists that he doesn't "worry about that anymore," according to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley. Maybe he is telling the honest-to-God truth there ...
... But that brings us back around to the notion of expectations. Lewis and the Bengals believe that Smith will show up to camp in shape, ready to work and then will deliver another season that puts him in the Pro Bowl discussion.
Is that realistic? It all depends on if you believe Smith's 2012 season was a breakthrough or an anomaly. After all, it was the first time in his four years in the league that he'd made it through all 16 games, and he did so while playing more than 1,000 snaps for the Bengals.
There were still hiccups along the way, too. Smith allowed two sacks against Denver's aggressive attack in Week 9 and was routinely beaten by Philadelphia's athletic Brandon Graham on a three-sack night in Week 16. For all the good he did, Smith also allowed more QB hurries in 2012 (25) than any other Bengals lineman.
The 2013 Bengals schedule is rife with teams possessing quick edge-rushers, which Graham proved can be problematic for the hulking Smith. Cincinnati plays Chicago, Pittsburgh and Green Bay over its first three weeks, and also must deal with Baltimore, Cleveland, Miami and Minnesota, among others.
All of these factors -- Smith's early absence from OTAs, his injury history, off-and-on weight issues and his questioned motivation level -- will make it tough to duplicate his 2012 performance. Pro Football Focus actually graded him as the best right tackle in football over the course of the season. One season does not a career make. Until Smith proves that he can repeat his success, after landing a multi-year contract, it's fair to expect Cincinnati's right tackle to regress back to his career mean.