Just in time for the regular season, it looks like Smith is poised to knock that door down. But coach Steve Spagnuolo isn't ready to tip his hand - not just yet.
"Between Sunday and Monday we'll have that wrapped up," Spagnuolo said Friday. "Sometimes you just get thrown in the fire before you're actually ready. And we'll decide whether we're going to go that route or put other guys in there."
Smith might not be totally ready for the right tackle position in the NFL, but it's not like he
embarrassed himself in the preseason, either. Sure he's had a few rough plays, including one early in the Kansas City game when Tamba Hali beat him around the edge for a pressure on quarterback Kyle Boller.
But he hasn't given up a sack this preseason and has steadily improved over the course of exhibition play.
"We know he struggled on that one play (against Kansas City). I mean, that's quite obvious," Spagnuolo said. "But you did see the aggressive offensive tackle that we watched on Baylor tape. He played with a little bit more confidence, I thought. And I thought as the game went on he got better and better."
Spagnuolo has been decidedly old-school when it comes to anointing rookies. Both Smith and second-rounder James Laurinaitis spent all spring and summer on the second units despite glaring needs at both tackle and middle linebacker. It's as if they still had to earn their starting berths in Spagnuolo's eyes.
"Every situation's different, every player's different, every team's different," Spagnuolo said. "But in this particular case, I think there's something to that. I don't think you just hand things over. I don't have children, but I mean, you start spoiling them (and) they tend not to be as hungry.
"But James did a nice job and deserved to get in there when he did. Jason's time will come."
Almost certainly sooner rather than later.
"Sky's the limit"
There's probably no better judge of line play - in St. Louis or anywhere else for that matter - than longtime NFL offensive line coach Jim Hanifan. Now retired, but part of the Rams radio broadcast team, Hanifan has been a Smith fan since before the draft.
"This youngster's got the temperament, and he's got the passion, and he's bright," Hanifan said. "This guy's got it all. ... He really wants to be good. When you have a youngster like that, the sky's the limit. I would love to have been (coaching) with him for a few years."
There are almost always footwork issues with young linemen, but those can be coached. Another critical element, Hanifan says, is whether a lineman is a "knee-bender." In other words, can he get low enough to gain a leverage advantage over a defensive lineman; low enough to move?
"If you can't bend your knees, you can't move," Hanifan said. "You don't have quickness."
In Hanifan's experience that can't be coached - you either have it or you don't.
So is Smith a "knee-bender" at 6 feet 5 inches tall?
"Oh yeah," Hanifan said. "Excellent."
But there's a lot more that goes into playing tackle in the NFL. For starters, Smith is learning an NFL playbook, complete with the myriad pass protections and line calls. Any technique issues are compounded because Smith didn't play in a three-point stance in college at Baylor.
And he hasn't been a right tackle since his sophomore year. The switch from the left side to right can't be understated. Some say it's like trying to write righthanded after being a lefty most of your life. It takes awhile.
The poster child for switching sides in recent NFL draft history is Carolina Pro Bowler Jordan Gross. The No. 8 overall pick out of Utah in 2003, Gross played right tackle as a rookie, left tackle in '04, went back to right in '05, back to left in '06, and back to right in '07. He has been at left tackle since the start of the '08 campaign, and finally seems entrenched there.
"I was fortunate enough in college to play on both sides, so I was pretty familiar with the switch," Gross told the Post-Dispatch. "In the NFL, there is a huge learning curve anyway, so it didn't matter whether I was playing on the right side or the left. It was going to be hard either way."
Conventional wisdom says the best pass rushers play over the left tackle, but that isn't necessarily the case.
"I think there are great 'D-ends' on both sides of the ball," Gross said. "(Michael) Strahan was a dominant pass rusher, and Leonard Little from St. Louis does a nice job as well."
Both are left ends.
A Little help
Little has 81 career sacks, the most for any Rams player since the franchise moved to St. Louis in 1995. Smith has seen Little's pass-rush moves first-hand on the practice field, frequently getting the worst of it during "team" periods or one-on-one drills. For a week or so in early to mid-August, Little had Smith's head spinning with an array of moves ... speed, power, inside, outside. But Little has tried to give Smith pointers along the way.
"That's my job," Little said. "I've been in the league for a while now. I know the team needs him. If we didn't need him, we wouldn't have picked him with the second pick in the draft. So I'm going to try to help him out the best way I can."
Whether the Rams need Smith to start on opening day will be determined very soon.
"I don't make any of those decisions," Smith said. "I just show up to work."
He then added with a laugh, "I don't feel I've earned anything yet except that meal they're probably going to give us, that everybody (on the team) gets. ... So whether it's playing left tackle, left guard, or serving water, I'm going to do whatever I can do to help the team."
Including playing right tackle.
Up next 3:15 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13 at Seahawks, KTVI (Ch. 2)