Brad Smith’s jack-of-all-trades approach has both served him well and left him wanting more in his first seven NFL seasons.
Smith has carved out a long career in the brutal business of professional football, and he’s made a good living while doing it (he’s entering the third year of a four-year contract with Buffalo Bills and is scheduled to make $3.75 million in 2013).
But his bouncing between quarterback, wide receiver and kick returner has left him feeling like a man without a home at times.
“There are some times, honestly, where I feel like, ‘man, I’d want that home,’ but at the same time I’ve learned so much,” Smith said. “I’m tremendously blessed to be able to play this game. For a coach to say, ‘Brad, we need you to play receiver,’ and then trust me enough to go out there and do what we need to do to win, it means a lot. If a quarterback goes down, and they need me to go in, then I can do that too.”
Smith’s ability to, as he puts it, “talk the language” of the team’s quarterbacks helps in his overall understanding of the new offense being installed by coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
“I can talk to Kevin Kolb and EJ,” Manuel “then come over to the receivers and kind of translate it,” Smith said. “And vice versa. I definitely see the benefits of it.
“The way this offense goes, how uptempo it is, you might see some reads, some option-type stuff. You never know what you’re going to see from coach Hackett. He’s such a creative guy.”
So far, Hackett has viewed Smith as a wide receiver, the position he’s lined up at exclusively through spring practices.
“It seems like every year it’s something different,” Smith said. “I’m glad I can do other things. Bottom line, I want to get on the field and make plays to help my team win.”
To that end, Smith has been frustrated with his role in Buffalo in his first two seasons here. In those two years, he’s thrown two passes out of the Wildcat formation – and had both intercepted. He’s also posted pedestrian numbers as a receiver, 37 receptions for 392 yards and three touchdowns. His rushing numbers – 34 carries for 203 yards and two touchdowns – also don’t jump off the page.
“I want to be on the field. I want to play. Several times before I wasn’t,” he said. “I did what I was asked to do. That’s all I can do. When I get on the field and get an opportunity, I’m going to try to make a play. That’s me in a nutshell. I’m going to do what’s asked of me and find a way to make an impact.”
Most often in his career, that’s come on special teams. After finishing second in kickoff return average (28.6 yards) in 2010 during his final season with the New York Jets, Smith had a down year in 2011 with the Bills with just 282 yards on 15 returns (18.8-yard average). He bounced back last season with an average of 27.6 yards per return (18 returns for 496 yards) and one touchdown.
Smith is also an effective safety valve on the Bills’ coverage units. Analytics website FootballOutsiders.com credited Smith with three touchdown-saving tackles on opponent punt returns last season that broke for more than 20 yards.
Special-teams tackles are not considered official NFL stats, but according to the Bills’ accounting, Smith led the team with 12 such stops.
The Bills revamped their receiving corps in the offseason with the additions of Robert Woods (second round), Marquise Goodwin (third round) and Da’Rick Rogers (undrafted free agent). Woods and Goodwin join Stevie Johnson as being regarded as locks for the 53-man roster, leaving Smith to compete with Rogers and holdovers T.J. Graham and Marcus Easley for potentially two or three spots.
“I feel like we’ve got a lot of receivers in the room,” Smith said. “They’re talented guys, hard working, and they want to be a part of the group and a part of this team. We’re competing as a unit, but also we want to compete on the field against everybody else. That’s the bond we’re building.”
Smith is by far the most experienced of the group, and thus a natural leader. That’s a trait he’s comfortable with.
“I just try to be myself. I’m always communicating and talking,” he said. “Not just football, but dealing with certain things in life. Even little things about where to eat and things like that. You build trust.”
The question is whether the sum of all the parts of Smith’s game is valued enough by new coach Doug Marrone to earn him a roster spot for an eighth NFL season.