'Excited' Smith ready for challenges ahead

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

As the second-to-last rookie to sign a contract, Cincinnati Bengals rookie tackle Andre Smith knows he has a lot of catching up to do. Smith ended the 30-day stalemate Sunday evening when he agreed to a contract worth a maximum of six years and $42 million.

In the spring, it was a given that Smith would be the starting right tackle in Week 1 when Cincinnati plays host to the Denver Broncos. He had taken all the first-team reps in minicamp and team workouts.

But months later Smith has suddenly become an unknown commodity -- at least for the time being. Smith has missed all of training camp and three preseason games to date. This week is the first time Bengals coaches are allowed to evaluate Smith to see where he currently stands physically and mentally.

"It was like, more or less, being a freshman out there getting back to football, running around and having fun with the guys," Smith said Sunday via telephone. "I'm talking about every single play to the coach, because I'm trying to catch up. So it's actually exciting."

Smith, the No. 6 overall pick, said all he wanted to do from Day 1 was play football. But the NFL is big business and usually that takes precedent before anything else can happen on the field.

Smith was one of just two draft picks who missed all of training camp and the first three preseason games. San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, the No. 10 overall pick, remains unsigned.

Ironically, the contract for No. 7 overall pick-Oakland Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey affected negotiations for Smith and Crabtree. Each felt he deserved more money than Heyward-Bey's $38.25-million deal. Oakland gave Heyward-Bey a great deal that provided a significant raise for the seventh pick, which altered the market.

Smith's agent Alvin Keels naturally felt his client deserved more as he was slotted one spot higher than Heyward-Bey. That led to a major snag in what was already a tough negotiation with Cincinnati, which was not willing to bend as easily as Oakland. A month later a compromise was reached in an incentive-laden deal that satisfied both parties.

With the dollars out of the way, now it's time to make sense of where Smith fits with the team.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is high on Smith's abilities and has left the door open for Smith to contribute right away. Anthony Collins has taken all the first-team reps this summer and is the team's starting right tackle. But really it's all up to Smith, who spent the summer working out independently in Alabama, to prove his readiness.

Ideally the Bengals would like Smith to see his first NFL action Thursday in the preseason finale against the Indianapolis Colts. That will help the team evaluate where he stands before the regular season begins Sept. 13. Cincinnati won't make the determination this week until Wednesday at the earliest once the coaches had a chance to monitor Smith through several practices.

"He has a lot of work to do," Lewis said. "But he knows the challenge ahead of him to make an impact on our team as soon as possible."

History is not on Smith's side.

This is the third consecutive year a rookie has held out for 30 days or more, and the two previous examples didn't work out very well.

Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell (42 days) and Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Derrick Harvey (33 days) both missed at least the first month with their teams and went on to have meager rookie campaigns.

Russell was the top pick in 2007 and didn't see playing time until late in the season. He threw for just 373 yards, two touchdowns, four interceptions and is still struggling to find his way in his third NFL season. Harvey, the No. 8 overall pick in 2008, recorded just 19 tackles and 3.5 sacks his first year as Jacksonville finished a disappointing 5-11.

Even within Smith's own locker room, he can turn to horror stories from new teammates Keith Rivers and Cedric Benson.

Similar to Smith, Benson missed all of training camp when the Chicago Bears made him the fourth overall pick in 2005. His career never got off the ground as Benson rushed for just 272 his rookie year and was released two seasons later. Last season, Rivers missed a relatively modest 10 days of training camp and played well. But his rookie year was cut short via injury after seven games.

According to Smith, getting up to speed physically will be his biggest adjustment.

"I expect probably a little bit of the physical [challenges], because you have to be in football shape," Smith said. "I'm actually a great learner as far as football. I came from a great system coming out of college and I've been through OTAs and rookie minicamp. So I'm actually not that far behind the guys. I think it's more or less the physical aspect."

On the HBO series "Hard Knocks," the Bengals poked fun of Smith's absence. The contract dispute was a serious situation, but teammates made light of it through skits that aired on national television, which Smith said he's taking in stride.

"It was all fun and games," Smith shrugged. "Anyone could easily be [upset] about the situation, but not me. I was OK with it. It was funny. It was entertaining. So I had a great time watching it."

Now those teammates have to deal with the 335-pound Smith every day in practice, as well as the rest of the NFL on Sundays. If Smith is able to avoid the perils of past rookies with long contract disputes and catch up to speed quickly, he could end up having the last laugh.

"Our vision of him is simply as a physically dominating player on our offensive line," Lewis said. "And we know that this guy wants to be very, very good."