Not all NFL draft busts are created equal

Buried in the back of Billy Devaney’s closet are a pair of cowboy boots that summon mostly unpleasant memories.

They were a thank-you gift from a heralded player the former St. Louis Rams general manager wishes he had never drafted.

In the midst of a dreadful three-year stretch in which they lost 42 of 48 games, the Rams landed the No. 2 pick in the 2009 NFL draft. Unable to find a trade partner for the pick, Devaney instead seized on the chance to bolster an undermanned offensive line that just lost seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace.

Of the elite offensive tackles the Rams scouted extensively leading up to the draft, Devaney and his staff liked Baylor’s Jason Smith best. Not only did the converted tight end boast the size, strength and mobility Devaney coveted in a future left tackle, exhaustive research into Smith’s background also revealed only glowing reviews about his character and work ethic.

“The thing that sold us more than anything else was how everyone at Baylor raved about him,” Devaney said. “They told us, ‘You can’t go wrong with this kid. Whatever his ceiling is, he’s going to achieve it.’ ”

When Devaney complimented the Baylor lineman on the dapper low-cut cowboy boots he wore to a pre-draft interview in St. Louis, Smith promised to purchase a pair for the general manager if the Rams selected him. Notes Devaney with a wry laugh, “It’s the only promise he lived up to.”

In a 2009 NFL draft rife with early round busts and players who did not live up to their potential, Smith is among the biggest disappointments. He washed out of the NFL after only four injury-plagued seasons, the shortest career of any No. 2 overall pick other than Ryan Leaf and Charles Rogers.

How Devaney erred so badly on Smith is a question that still haunts the former Rams general manager a decade later. He remains uncertain if he misevaluated Smith’s physical talent, if he overestimated Smith’s desire to be great or if a string of early concussions denied Smith the long, fruitful Rams career he might otherwise have enjoyed.

“To this day, there are times that Jason Smith pops into my head and I think, ‘What did we not see? How did we screw this up?’ ” Devaney said. “When he arrived in St. Louis, he was not the guy who was at Baylor that all his coaches and everyone swore by. We did not get the same Jason Smith.”

Jason Smith was selected second overall in the 2009 NFL draft, behind the Lions Matthew Stafford. (Getty Images)
Jason Smith was selected second overall in the 2009 NFL draft, behind the Lions' Matthew Stafford. (Getty Images)

Desire for a better life

Before Smith’s NFL career went sideways, it’s easy to understand why the Rams felt comfortable investing in him. This is a guy who elevated himself out a crime-ridden, drug-infested pocket of Dallas through determination and hard work.

As a boy, Smith tagged along with his grandmother when she worked the concession stand on Sundays at a rodeo arena. In between doing odd jobs like working the gate or picking up garbage, Smith would pester the adults he encountered to teach him to ride a horse or rope a steer.

That experience exposed Smith to a life wholly different than his own. It made Smith dream of leaving inner-city Dallas behind, moving to the country and owning horses and a ranch of his own someday.

“I had a want for a different life and I got exposed to it,” he said. “It was intriguing to me.”

The desire for a better life was the crux of Smith’s motivation for starting a lawn-mowing service as a teenager.

Whereas his friends asked for the latest shoes or video games for Christmas or their birthdays, Smith typically requested only cash that he’d save up to buy leaf blowers, weed wackers and other equipment he needed to grow his business. He mowed lawns all four years he attended W.T. White High School, even while playing football and basketball, working a second part-time job at a pet store and achieving passing grades.

“Jason was a little bit different than most high school kids,” former W.T. White assistant coach Billy Thompson said. “Most kids really can’t see past tomorrow. They live in the now. Jason always had long-term goals. He was more mature and he definitely had a focus about him that made him unique.”

For a while, it appeared Smith’s entrepreneurial talents were more likely to help him achieve his goals than his football prowess was. Not a single college coach had showed a shred of interest in Smith entering his senior season at W.T. White, let alone offered him a scholarship.

The turning point came during Smith’s senior year when W.T. White’s new offensive coordinator urged him to move from offensive tackle to tight end. There weren’t any Division I schools willing to take a chance on an undersized 220-pound offensive lineman, but a tall, lanky tight end was far more palatable.

Smith flashed enough athleticism while playing tight end and defensive end as a senior to drum up interest from Baylor, Houston, Kansas and Kansas State. Baylor signed Smith as a tight end in 2004, though many back at W.T. White believed his future might be at offensive tackle if he worked hard in the weight room and took advantage of the protein smorgasbord colleges provide their athletes.

“He rarely got three square meals a day growing up, so I knew if he got around a training table, he could definitely blow up,” Thompson said. “He was a skinny kid in high school, but he always had the frame.”

Smith bulked up enough by the start of his redshirt sophomore season that Baylor coach Guy Morriss moved him back to offensive tackle. He started all 12 games at right tackle for the Bears as a sophomore before fighting through knee injuries as a junior, displaying enough potential to intrigue NFL scouts.

When Art Briles replaced Morris as Baylor’s coach in 2007, Smith was considering forgoing his final season of college eligibility and entering the NFL draft. Briles urged Smith to reconsider, telling him he could work on a ranch if he left school early but he could buy a ranch of his own if he returned for his senior season and establish himself as an elite offensive tackle.

Sure enough, Smith's play ascended to another level in 2008.

By the end of that season, there was no longer any doubt Smith would be among the first offensive linemen selected in the NFL draft. For the first time in his football career, he would have to tackle the challenge of high expectations.

Jason Smith played three seasons for the Rams, starting 26 games. (Getty)
Jason Smith played three seasons for the Rams, starting 26 games. (Getty)

A blow to the head

There is always pressure on first-round picks to prove themselves quickly in the NFL, but the most heralded rookies in the 2009 draft faced a different burden than those of today. They entered the league during a period when players drafted early in the first round commanded exorbitant rookie contracts worth more than what established veterans were making.

Smith’s six-year rookie contract was worth up to $61.8 million, with $33 million guaranteed, a richer deal than star running back Steven Jackson’s at the time. That salary left the Rams little choice but to start Smith right away at right tackle as a rookie and made the 23-year-old an easy scapegoat when he got off to a bumpy start.

For an offensive tackle who had come from Briles’ spread offense and whose pass-blocking technique was still raw, transitioning to the NFL was challenging. In the first game of his career, Smith gave up a sack to Seattle’s Lawrence Jackson. One week later, he suffered a first-half knee injury that sidelined him for the next two weeks.

Once Smith returned from that injury, he gradually began to make progress. He regained his starting right tackle job in a Week 8 victory against Detroit, displayed solid pass protection and aggressive run-blocking the next two weeks and then delivered one of the blocks that enabled Jackson to break free for a 48-yard run against Arizona in Week 11.

“He was starting to come on and learning to adjust to different looks that defenses were giving us,” Rams offensive line coach Steve Loney said.

Then came the hit that Smith and Loney argue changed the trajectory of his whole career. Just three plays after he sprung Jackson for that long run against the Cardinals in November 2009, Smith took a knee to the head while attempting a cut block and suffered a concussion that ended his rookie season.

Smith recovered in time for training camp the following season, but the concussion proved not to be an isolated incident. He says he suffered at least four or five more concussions during his remaining three seasons in the NFL, some documented and others undisclosed.

A blow to the head during practice sidelined him for a game against Carolina midway through the 2010 season. He also missed the last 10 games of the following season after diving to tackle a Dallas defender returning a fumble and enduring another knee to the head.

“The worst concussions I had really, really messed me up,” Smith said. “Usually they affected me most visually. The doctors would have me try to read a sentence and my eyes would get stuck on a word and then they would jump.

“To this day, I have to wear glasses with a certain kind of tint so my eyes don’t twitter and jump. There’s certain things I can’t watch on TV. If there are lights flickering, I just get headaches that lay me out. I’m still affected by them, basically. It’s something I have to go through.”

Where the concussions hurt Smith most from a football standpoint was that they halted his development for months at a time. Instead of incrementally improving his technique, building chemistry with his fellow linemen and gaining the trust of his coaches, Smith often took one step forward and two steps back.

Devaney also observed that Smith’s aggressiveness diminished once his recurring concussions began. No longer did Devaney see Smith blocking 10 yards downfield or finishing plays through the whistle as often as he did in college.

“Something happened to him after he got to St. Louis, and he lost his stinger,” Devaney said. “What was the cause of that? To this day, I don’t know.”

As a result of Smith’s bloated salary, underwhelming performance and history of recovering slowly from injuries, questions about his passion for football dogged him throughout his NFL career. It especially hurt when a few of his Rams teammates openly wondered why defensive tackle Darrell Scott came back from a concussion in the Dallas game in a month and Smith didn’t return until training camp the following season.

It probably also didn’t help the league’s perception of Smith that he fulfilled his lifelong dream of purchasing a ranch about 90 miles south of Dallas. Smith recalls Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo once approaching him at practice to ask if he was devoting too much time and energy to his ranch and if it was safe for him to be riding horses.

“I said, ‘Don’t worry, Coach. It won’t be a distraction,’ ” Smith said. “To be honest, I think me and my horses were the safest thing guys were doing with their free time.”

Smith believes the questions about his commitment to football arose because of the league’s ignorance toward concussions at the time that he played. After God and family, he insists that football was his top priority during his NFL career.

Nobody worked more closely with Smith than Loney while both were in St. Louis, and the ex-Rams offensive line coach defended his former player.

To Loney, a player who lacks passion for football is one who shows up late to morning meetings because they were out partying the night before or skips voluntary offseason workouts because they have better things to do. Loney can’t recall Smith missing a single commitment when he was healthy and noted that the offensive tackle always arrived prepared and ready to work.

“I don’t see any basis to question his passion for the game,” Loney said. “My guess is that the people who say that are ones that think a real passionate person should just lie to the trainer and say, ‘My head is fine. I don’t have any headaches.’ ”

Bust or no bust?

The beginning of the end of Smith’s NFL career arrived when the Rams made a regime change prior to his fourth season of professional football. New coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead said they would give Smith a chance after he agreed to restructure what was left of his rookie contract to take a paycut, but his window of opportunity didn’t last long.

Fed up with Smith’s waning confidence and lingering technique issues, Fisher demoted him to second string during training camp in August 2012 and elevated former sixth-round pick Barry Richardson on the depth chart. Not even two weeks later, Snead gave up on Smith altogether, trading him to the New York Jets in return for a journeyman offensive tackle who had just given up 2½ sacks in a preseason game.

“If I was the Rams, I’d have done the same thing,” Smith said. “They brought someone in that could do the same job I could but was a whole lot cheaper. He cost $700,000. I cost $4 million.”

Whereas Smith had been a lightning rod for criticism with the Rams because of his huge salary and draft pedigree, he was just another face in the huddle with the Jets. He performed capably as a backup tackle that season, regaining some lost confidence while basking in his newfound anonymity.

Smith signed with New Orleans the following season in hopes of competing for a starting job, but both the city and the team proved to be a poor fit for him. The Saints cut Smith before the season began and he was unable to latch on anywhere else.

Since his football career ended almost six years ago, Smith has filled that void by breeding horses on his ranch, hosting barrel racing and roping events, and even competing in team roping events. He and a partner finished fifth at the 2014 World Series of Team Roping in Las Vegas, netting a $108,000 paycheck.

When Smith reflects on his NFL career, he emphasizes the positive. A kid from Dallas who dreamed of a better life set himself up to achieve his goals by going farther in football than most ever thought possible. Smith may not have accomplished everything he wanted in the NFL, but he insists he enjoyed his four seasons of professional football.

“The truth is I really had a blast in the NFL,” he said. “If I died today, I wish everybody would say, ‘That guy played as hard as he could,’ instead of, ‘Oh, he’s a bust.’ ”

Of course, those in the NFL take a more pragmatic view of Smith’s football legacy.

“He was in fact a bust, right?” Loney said. “He was the second pick in the draft, and his career never panned out. It’s a business and you have to call it like it is. But I don’t think people should look down on him like he was chasing tail all night long, drinking and living that lifestyle. They can’t say that about this kid. I can admit he was a bust, but I can’t say a single bad thing about his character and his dedication to the game.”

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