Former Bengals first-round pick finds way into starting role again

David Kohl/USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI -- Andre Smith was in an airport when an act of God helped bring him back to the Cincinnati Bengals.

This summer, Smith landed in Charlotte for a connecting flight to New York City, where the veteran offensive tackle was scheduled to work out for the New York Giants. Smith walked up to the gate and learned his flight was canceled because of a massive storm. The weather foiled Smith's attempt to reboot his career and forced him to return home to Birmingham, Alabama.

Less than 24 hours later, he had a new destination.

The Bengals drafted Smith with the sixth overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, and now, the tackle is back in for his fourth stint with the franchise. After wondering if he potentially played his final game in the NFL, he's playing an integral role in Cincinnati.

"I knew an opportunity would come," Smith said. "I didn't feel like it was over for me. I just had to grab it by the horns and take advantage of it when it comes."

The former Alabama standout really never thought he'd leave the Bengals. He never sold his condominium near the intersection of 5th Street and Pike, even as his career took him out of Cincinnati.

After he spent the first seven seasons of his pro career with the franchise, he spent one year with the Minnesota Vikings before returning to Cincinnati for 2017. Last year, Smith started eight games with the Arizona Cardinals before he was cut midseason and almost immediately picked up by the Bengals.

It was a short-term arrangement. Smith's contract expired and he found himself unemployed for the first time since he entered the league.

And instead of leaning into retirement, Smith did the opposite. The 32-year-old spent the offseason training in Birmingham.

Originally, it appeared Smith wouldn't have a spot on the first Bengals roster under new coach Zac Taylor. Cincinnati used a first-round pick to draft Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams and re-signed right tackle Bobby Hart. They also had veteran tackle Cordy Glenn.

But after Williams suffered a serious shoulder injury that required surgery in June, the Bengals needed a tackle. And after his workouts in Cincinnati, Smith took his condo off the market and signed a deal with the franchise. When Glenn was put into the league's concussion protocol before the season opener against the Seattle Seahawks, Smith was in the starting lineup.

Hart remembers being in high school when the Bengals drafted Smith. In addition to the knowledge that comes with a decade in a league, Hart said Smith brings composure to an offensive line that features three new starters, including rookie left guard Mike Jordan.

"He don't ever get too flustered, even when you put him in situations," Hart said. "You just look at him and it's all even-keeled. That's one of the things that I really respect about him."

Last Sunday, Smith had his hands full with Seahawks pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, whom the Seahawks acquired days before the season opener. Though Smith had a costly holding penalty and Clowney registered a sack, the Bengals' coaching staff and front office was pleased with Smith's performance.

"I'm proud as hell of Andre," Cincinnati offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. "He did, I think, better than anyone thought having not played a lot of football, and all of sudden he comes in and he's playing 70 plays at left tackle, which is not his natural position over his career.

"He did an outstanding job and he fought hard for those guys up front and our team."

Smith will again be challenged on Sunday when the Bengals host the San Francisco 49ers. He'll have to block defensive ends Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, the second overall pick in this year's draft.

The veteran tackle knows that if and when Glenn is cleared from concussion protocol, he'll probably surrender his starting spot. But no matter what happens, Smith is just happy to be back in Cincinnati again.

"It's home," Smith said. "It's where everything started. That was just a good feeling to be back here."