The whispers that started in the preseason had grown much louder through the first two weeks of Torrey Smith’s NFL career.
A growing number of critics wondered why the Ravens had used a second-round pick on the wide receiver from the University of Maryland. A few even went as far as labeling him a “bust” after two games, no matter how foolish the proclamation sounded after such a short amount of time.
He looked confused, overwhelmed, and in over his head against opposing defenses.
At one point during the preseason, coach John Harbaugh pleaded with media and fans to “lay off the kid” and to give him time to develop.
He had even been razzed in practice by linebacker Terrell Suggs and the Baltimore defense after dropping passes in an effort to toughen him up, according to Harbaugh. Smith had even dropped a pass in the portion of practice open to the media on Friday, not exactly inspiring confidence with Flacco and the coaching staff.
With veteran receiver Lee Evans out with an ankle injury, Smith found himself back in the starting lineup with the Ravens needing him to grow up quickly against the St. Louis Rams. Smith showed immediate maturation with three touchdown catches of 74, 41, and 18 yards on the first three receptions of his pro career — all in the first quarter — to lead the Ravens to an emphatic 37-7 win over the Rams on Sunday. The former Terp finished with five receptions for 152 yards in the victory.
The 22-year-old suddenly looked like the dynamic deep threat he was in College Park, turning in a performance reminiscent of his four-touchdown day against North Carolina State at Byrd Stadium last November. However, a record-setting game against the Wolfpack doesn’t compare with the shredding he provided cornerback Justin King and the St. Louis defense.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and quarterback Joe Flacco clearly wanted to target the speedy wideout, and Smith took full advantage of the opportunities provided as he became the first rookie to catch three touchdown passes in a first quarter in NFL history.
After feeling pressure entering training camp as a projected starter — before Evans was acquired in a trade following the preseason opener — and struggling to find his place in the Baltimore offense, Smith finally looked like a player having fun and exuding confidence on the football field. It’s an encouraging sign with Evans’ status up in the air for the immediate future and second-year receiver David Reed out until after the bye week with a shoulder injury.
One of the Ravens’ biggest objectives this offseason was to find a wide receiver capable of stretching the field to create space for No. 1 receiver Anquan Boldin and the intermediate passing game. It was the reason the Ravens chose Smith with the 58th overall pick in April, and he finally showed a return on the investment as he sprinted by the Rams secondary on two touchdowns and brought down a third score on a fade route to give the Ravens an insurmountable 21-point lead with 1:53 remaining in the first quarter.
Before proclaiming Smith an instant playmaker, it’s important to note high draft picks such as Travis Taylor and Mark Clayton had big performances despite underwhelming careers in Baltimore. One terrific game does not instantly validate the decision to draft Smith, but it sure makes everyone involved feel a lot better for the time being.
Knowing his difficult upbringing and how hard he’s worked to get to this point, it’s impossible not to feel good for the rookie after many doubters questioned his ability to make plays at the next level. He’ll need to build upon the strong game as a three-touchdown output against a porous St. Louis secondary will grab the attention of defensive coordinators around the league.
Instead of thinking too much and trying to be too perfect in the Ravens offense, Smith simply showed off his blazing speed and caught the football like he’s been doing for a long time going back to his days at Stafford Senior High School just north of Fredericksburg, Va.
It was exactly what the Ravens needed on Sunday to eliminate the foul odor of an embarrassing loss in Nashville last week and to put Baltimore back on a winning track.