Only 18 months ago, the Ravens selected Jimmy Smith with the 27th overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft with thoughts of the Colorado product becoming a shutdown cornerback.
Needless to say, the start of Smith’s professional career hasn’t gotten off to the start he anticipated as an ankle injury in the 2011 season opener and the emergence of Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams had relegated Smith to part-time duty over the first 18 games of his career. However, with the season-ending ACL injury suffered by Webb in the Ravens’ 31-29 win over the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday, Smith now finds himself in the starting role he and the Ravens initially envisioned on draft day two years ago.
The 24-year-old is ready to prove the Ravens made the right decision in tabbing him as a first-round talent, even if he’s had to wait patiently for his first extensive opportunity to start. Though Smith sustained a groin injury against Dallas, he is expected to make the start against the Houston Texans this Sunday.
“First, second, third, seventh [round], it doesn’t matter,” Smith said. “Once you get drafted, you want to prove what you’ve got. You want to prove to everybody that you belong, and it [stinks] that my opportunity came at a time when another player was hurt, but at the same time, you’ve got to step up and show what you’ve got.”
In reality, Smith’s role had increased this season anyway as defensive coordinator Dean Pees has made extensive use of the nickel package, with the second-year cornerback playing on the outside on the opposite side of Williams as Webb slid inside to assume the nickel spot. Prior to Sunday when Webb went down with the knee injury in the first quarter, Smith had participated in 55 percent of the Ravens’ total number of defensive snaps (205 of 373) through the first five weeks of the season.
Veteran special-teams standout Corey Graham is expected to play in the nickel package and line up at the inside position previously occupied by Webb.
Through six games this season, Smith has collected 16 tackles and three pass breakups. He’ll now be asked to play nearly all defensive snaps, though the expanded workload won’t really come with any new responsibilities while on the field.
“I expect him to play really well,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I have tremendous confidence in Jimmy Smith. We all do. Jimmy’s got tremendous confidence. He’s here for a reason. He’s talented, he works hard. He’ll play well.”
Despite an impressive 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame for a cornerback, Smith has been hesitant to use his impressive size to chuck wide receivers at the line of scrimmage, instead using his above-average speed. The defensive back is also inconsistent in trying to find the football in coverage, often in good position but failing to finish plays.
Smith seemed to adjust to the speed of the game late last season, intercepting two passes in the final seven weeks of the regular season and collecting another interception in the AFC Championship game against New England. However, he’s still getting used to the complexity of routes run by NFL receivers.
“There are a lot more route combinations up here, so you’ve got to always keep your eyes on the man, and then turning your head is kind of a skill that you’ve got to kind of perfect,” Smith said. “Then sometimes, you turn your head around, he stops, and then catches a comeback. It’s just a lot of discipline with that, and like I said, I worked on it a lot this offseason — when to turn, when not to look and how to play the hands.”
Both Williams and Smith have been maligned for suspect coverage this season as the Baltimore defense has struggled to find a consistent pass rush. With Webb no longer a part of the defensive backfield, the unit will face even greater challenges in trying to slow opposing passing attacks.
Smith beginning to realize his immense potential as a full-time player would be a shot in the arm to the 26th-ranked defense in the NFL. He expects to be challenged even more now that he’ll be on the field a lot more in his new starting role.
“I’m a second-year corner,” Smith said. “They’re definitely going to attack me. But, I’ve got to strap it on and be ready.”