Competing in his first training camp after the NFL lockout wiped out the entire offseason, Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith struggled physically and mentally in trying to learn on the fly last year.
Without the benefit of organized team activities and access to the team’s Owings Mills facility after April’s draft, the Maryland standout struggled so much in the preseason that many were already suggesting the 58th overall pick was a reach, a green project more than a known commodity that a second-round pick is typically expected to be.
The drops were plentiful as he tried to make catches with his body and the speedy receiver struggled to get separation as he wasn’t comfortable with his responsibilities within the offense. The frustration was visible on his face many times last preseason.
“This time last year, I could barely walk and chew gum at the same time,” Smith said. “I was thinking so much about the assignment and kind of really worrying about things that I shouldn’t have been worrying about.”
However, Smith caught on quickly after a quiet start to the season — no receptions in his first two games — by exploding with three touchdowns and 152 receiving yards in a Week 3 win over St. Louis. His emergence came at the perfect time as veteran Lee Evans went down with an ankle injury and proved to be ineffective all season.
The highlight of his rookie season came in Week 9 at Pittsburgh when the rookie caught a 26-yard touchdown with eight seconds remaining to give the Ravens a 23-20 win and season sweep of the Steelers. It was quite the leap from two months earlier when critics wondered if Smith was a bust.
His dramatic improvement was a credit to his impeccable work ethic, according to coach John Harbaugh.
“This is a guy that comes to work every single day,” Harbaugh said. “All he thinks about is how he can get better. He is the most efficient improver – if that’s a word – that I’ve ever seen. He gets the most out of every day, and that’s why he’s going to continue to become a great player.”
Smith finished with 50 catches, 841 yards, and seven touchdowns — the latter two marks single-season rookie records for the franchise — and ranked 13th in the NFL with 16.8 yards per catch as opposing defenses needed to respect his ability to stretch the field.
This offseason, the 6-foot, 205-pound wideout wasn’t interested in reflecting on a successful rookie campaign. Instead, he was more concerned with improving his route-running and grasp of the Baltimore offense and took advantage of his first full offseason to do so.
“Instead of really concentrating on what I did, I was more focused on what I left out on the field,” Smith said. “To me, it could have been a lot better. I have high standards for myself, and to know looking back at the end of the year, watching all of the plays that I left on the field, it could have been a monster season for me. I know as long as I can be consistent, I can do that and I can reach those goals.”
Smith has looked more comfortable in running intermediate routes this summer, making catches in traffic and displaying better timing with quarterback Joe Flacco in sideline routes. The second-year player now relies on his hands consistently to make catches and seems to have broken the habit of trying to secure passes with his body at times.
The former Terrapin is also healthy after dealing with a sports hernia through much of his rookie season. While it didn’t appear to impact his ability to blow the top off a secondary last year, the thought of a healthier Smith showing an even better ability to change direction and use his straight-line speed has to be a nightmare for opposing secondaries.
“I feel a lot better,” Smith said. “The biggest thing with the surgery is that everything that I was doing last year was painful. And, when it started to get cold, it was terrible. I was fighting that battle every day, and now I’m able to run and get out of my breaks; I’m not feeling any pain at all.”
McKinnie increases workload
After two limited days of practice to fulfill the required acclimation period under the collective bargaining agreement, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie took more extensive work Monday but wasn’t automatically handed his starting left tackle spot.
Michael Oher received the majority of the reps as the starting left tackle as McKinnie received limited work with the first team and more reps with the second-team offense. With Harbaugh’s proclamation earlier in training camp that Oher would be the left tackle until further notice, it’s hardly surprising that McKinnie will have to earn his job back.
McKinnie said Saturday that he weighted 360 pounds and appeared to handle his reps without any laboring physically. Though never an impressive run blocker, McKinnie held firm in pass coverage and anchored well against pass rushers such as Paul Kruger and Albert McClellan.
“He worked hard,” Harbaugh said. “He made it through the whole practice, which is something, because football shape is different than regular-conditioning-test shape. So, he pushed through the whole practice. I thought he looked athletic. He looked like he was moving well. Now, he’s just got to stack them and go compete.”
For now, Oher will continue to receive reps at both left and right tackle as the coaching staff assesses where McKinnie is with his conditioning and overall play before ultimately shaping the starting offensive line. Oher did slide back over to right tackle when McKinnie worked with the first team, which is a difficult adjustment the fourth-year tackle has handled without much difficulty in his career.
The Ravens would like to afford Oher the opportunity to focus on one side or the other, but McKinnie’s uncertain status as well as the impressive work of rookie Kelechi Osemele at right tackle have made Oher’s stay at left tackle longer than expected.
“It’s not ideal; it’s not the perfect scenario,” Harbaugh said. “You always want to be set at all of your positions, but that’s not always realistic, either. It’s training camp; it’s football. Guys compete for spots.”