A year ago, Bucs offensive line coach George Warhop was unwavering in his support for left tackle Donovan Smith, and on Thursday, he again made it clear he considers the fourth-year player among the best at his position.
"I don't think I'd take anybody in his draft class over him, nobody, in terms of a tackle," Warhop said in the annual offseason media session with Bucs assistants. "Then you start evaluating him with other left tackles in the league. I have to really think about it, but I can count on one hand how many guys I would like to have to replace him."
Smith is entering a contract year, as is left guard Ali Marpet, and the Bucs just made free agent Ryan Jensen the highest-paid center in the league. Warhop made it clear that Smith's durability and resiliency — he's started all 48 games in his career and missed only part of one game — are major assets. He cited Smith bouncing back to start last year against the Saints when he wasn't expected to due to injury.
"He said, 'There is no way I am missing that game.' How are you going to trade out that kind of mentality?" Warhop said. "Now can he play better? Yeah. Does he have elite ability? Yeah. Has he played to that on a consistent basis? No. So that's my job to get him to that level consistently. I'm not trading him out. You guys have something that's special … I would be in no hurry to try to find somebody else to replace him."
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter had similar praise, unsolicited, for Smith at the end of last season, admiring the way he pushed through injury to stay a reliable presence on the offensive line for three straight years.
Smith spoke about that support last month, saying the only thing that matters to him is what the people at One Buc Place think of his play.
More Warhop from Thursday:
— On last year's offensive line play in general: "I'm still (upset) about last year. To be honest with you, sometimes you need those scars to be bleeding for a long time. I'm still rather (upset). You bring it up, you'll start to see it."
— On Ali Marpet's transition from center to left guard: "(It) is really easy … Ali is smart. … Of all the guys, no matter where I'm moving them from, he would be the one I'd have the least concerns about."
— On J.R. Sweezy, still not cleared to return from a knee injury in December: "All I know is he's busting his tail."
— On rookie Alex Cappa, who is getting his first look at guard: "He's got a long way to go. He was a tackle in college, we are moving him to guard, teaching him how to play center. So we will see how he rolls." He likes that Cappa worked out with former Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley.