Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Had the contract dispute never happened, Smith without a doubt would be the starter in Week 1 against the Denver Broncos. He was arguably the top offensive lineman in the draft. But Smith's absence has created challenges -- mentally and physically -- that the rookie has to overcome before he sees the field.
Now Smith's status as a starter is in limbo. Backup Anthony Collins has been serviceable and took all of the first-team reps since training camp began last month. Smith is expected to be Cincinnati's best offensive lineman, but it won't happen right away. So Collins, if a game were played today, would be the safer option.
But Smith has a chance to prove over the next two weeks that he can surpass Collins and be better protection for starting quarterback Carson Palmer. There are certainly no guarantees that will happen. In fact, Collins is probably the favorite to start at right tackle on Sept. 13 against Denver.
A major part of the evaluation will be whether Smith can ready himself to play in Thursday's preseason finale and perform well against the Indianapolis Colts. The Bengals will not make that call until Wednesday or Thursday after monitoring Smith for several practices.
Despite long odds, playing Thursday would give Smith at least a fighting chance to start in Week 1. Otherwise, expect him to remain a backup for now and help as Cincinnati's third tackle until he catches up to the rest of his teammates.