The aftermath of Jimmy Smith’s season-ending Achilles injury took on a different tone Monday as the Ravens cornerback was already facing a suspension.
As first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Smith has been suspended four games without pay for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy. The seventh-year defensive back had been appealing the ruling, but he will now serve the ban while on injured reserve for the remainder of the season.
It remains unclear what substance Smith tested positive for or whether any usage may have been in response to the Achilles tendinitis he’d been dealing with for more than two months. With the 2011 first-round pick tearing his left Achilles tendon in Sunday’s win over Detroit, some have questioned whether he should have been playing in the first place, citing Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman sustaining his own Achilles rupture last month after experiencing pain in the weeks leading up to the injury.
Of course, it’s easy to feel that way after the fact and there’s no way of knowing if more extensive rest would have been beneficial or would have only delayed the inevitable.
“The doctors will tell you that you just can’t predict that,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “If you have the tightness or the soreness, it doesn’t [always] lead to a [tear], you know? Doing it for all of these years, I’ve seen them not tear, and I’ve seen them tear. Obviously, that’s what you kind of suspect, but that’s not what the doctors tell us, so that’s why guys continue to play.”
It’s possible that Smith could have been dealing with a partial tear, but former Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil played with a partially-torn Achilles two years ago and was even named to the Pro Bowl playing all 16 games that season. Partial tears still run the risk of a full rupture and frequently require the same reconstruction surgery and lengthy recovery and rehabilitation of a full tear.
Harbaugh’s assessment of the Ravens’ handling of Smith was in line with the reaction from Dr. David Chao, the former team doctor of the San Diego Chargers who now writes about sports injuries at ProFootballDoc.com.
“There is no reason for him to have not been playing,” Chao wrote Sunday. “There is a higher rate of rupture with antecedent Achilles pain, but the majority of players with Achilles tendinitis do not suffer tears.”
Unlike past instances when Smith was out of the lineup, Baltimore has greater depth in the secondary and will hand his starting job over to rookie first-round pick Marlon Humphrey, who ranks 45th among qualified cornerbacks in Pro Football Focus’ grading system this season. Humphrey shook off a rocky performance to intercept Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in the fourth quarter of the 44-20 win.
With Humphrey and veteran Brandon Carr now serving as the starting outside cornerbacks, second-year nickel back Maurice Canady will likely see more practice time on the outside and will serve as their primary backup. A healthy scratch for the last three weeks, rookie Jaylen Hill could also be in the mix and turned heads during training camp to earn a roster spot before suffering a hamstring injury that kept him out for the first six weeks of the season.
The Ravens could also elevate cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste from their practice squad upon placing Smith on IR.
“Our secondary is the strength of our team, so we’re not going to sit back and be sorry for ourselves,” safety Eric Weddle said. “Maurice is back. Marlon’s got to step up. Jaylen’s got to step up. That’s why we have so much depth.
“Will the guys be as good as Jimmy? No, but we’ll step up and play well in his absence.”
The Achilles tear and suspension are the latest frustrating chapters of Smith’s career that’s been marred by injuries. This will mark the fifth time in his seven seasons that the Colorado product will have played in 12 or fewer games.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound corner was garnering serious Pro Bowl consideration and had arguably been Baltimore’s best player this season, leading the way for the NFL’s second-best pass defense entering Week 13.
“I know he’s going to be back,” said tight end Benjamin Watson, who suffered an Achilles tendon tear last year. “Jimmy’s a fighter, and Jimmy’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around. There’s no doubt he’ll be back soon.”
Smith has two years remaining on his current contract and is set to make $9 million in base salary next season. His 2018 salary cap figure is a hefty $15.675 million, but cutting him would save only $2.37 million and leave more than $13 million in dead money on the cap.