Jimmy Smith has prototypical size for the cornerback position. He has the speed to bump receivers, then trail them down the sideline. He has confidence to burn, too, which is always a good thing to have at that position.
In his first two seasons with the Ravens, Smith showed occasional flashes, but he couldn’t stay on the field long enough to live up to the lofty expectations that came with him being a first-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft. But as Smith enters his third season in the league, the expectations he soon will face might be even greater.
Cary Williams, one of the team’s Week 1 starters from a season ago, is gone, having signed a three-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. Their other starting corner, Lardarius Webb, is attempting to return from a torn ACL, a tough recovery that has traditionally been a lot tougher than Adrian Peterson made it look last season.
Regardless of Webb’s situation, the Ravens are going to need a corner to step up in 2013, and the obvious candidate is Smith.
When Webb got hurt back in Week 6, a loss that was greater than losing Ray Lewis to a triceps injury, Smith finally ascended to the starting lineup. (Back in training camp, many assumed that Smith would be given a starting spot then, but he couldn’t beat out Williams.) Smith’s play was adequate, but he soon would need sports hernia surgery. When he returned in Week 15, Corey Graham had the job on lockdown.
Because he still wasn’t completely healthy, the Ravens eased Smith back onto the field. He played just two defensive snaps in the wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts and none against the Denver Broncos in the divisional round. He played nearly half the defensive snaps in the AFC championship game, though.
Smith played just 18 snaps against the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, but it was easily his best performance of the season. And his tight, physical -- and arguably illegal, depending on which Harbaugh brother you are -- coverage of Michael Crabtree on the game's final plays helped the Ravens preserve the victory.
“I think those plays right there are gonna go an awful long way for him,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said an interview with 105.7 The Fan, according to the team’s official website. “I think he’s a tremendous talent. I’ve seen a difference in him already here in the offseason. This guy has been around here all winter.”
The top three cornerbacks at this early point in the offseason are Webb, Graham and Smith. Technically, only two of those players will be labeled as starters, but all three should be considered as such given how often opposing offenses use three-receiver sets. The Ravens also have third-year cornerback Chykie Brown and second-year cornerback Asa Jackson in the mix. Veteran cornerback Chris Johnson has been re-signed, as well.
A starting job is there for Smith, who turns 25 this summer, to seize, but it’s certainly not going to be handed to him.
"The best guy has to play," secondary coach Teryl Austin said. "It doesn't matter where you're drafted and how you got here. If you're here and are performing the best, you're going to play.”
Austin might have been speaking about the uncertain strong safety position when he said that, but it applies to the entire secondary. After all, Williams was signed off a practice squad and he started.
Williams is gone now. While he was by no means a lock-down cornerback, he was a steady starter who could be counted on to play every week, something that cannot yet be said about Smith, who missed nine games in his first two NFL seasons.
At 6 feet 2 and 205 pounds, Smith could potentially offset the loss of the size and swagger that Williams took with him to Philadelphia. And Smith has more natural ability.
Two years into his young career, though, we are still talking about his potential and not his production.
It is still too early to write Smith off, but the Ravens need him to finally start meeting the hype in 2013.