The Ravens remain in the process of fortifying their secondary — and they have made some notable additions this offseason — but there's a case to be made that the defensive key to ending a two-year playoff drought is a healthy Jimmy Smith.
No one really disputes this, except maybe Smith himself, and that's only because he wants to be deferential to the talented defensive players around him. He's one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and might well have been the difference maker during the final month of last season if not for the high ankle sprain that ended his year in Week 14.
Of course, that's something of a familiar refrain. The only thing standing between Smith's Pro Bowl-level talent and a chance to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player is his ability to remain standing long enough to show everyone just how good he can be. But no one can say he isn't a stand-up guy.
Though he has been taking questions about his problems staying on the field for the past three years, he accepted the latest round Wednesday without rancor. He said he's neither angry nor intent on proving people wrong, because they aren't.
"I can't be mad," he said after taking part in the first two days of the Ravens' voluntary offseason workout program. "I've missed games. I've missed a lot of games. It hurts to sit on the sidelines and hear it, but it's the truth. That's not my motivation [to prove anything]. My motivation is to dominate … to be one of the best players in the league. I'm tired of just being hurt. I'm tired of not being able to compete and do my job."
There really isn't anything to prove when it comes to pure talent at a position that is always in huge demand. The Ravens chose him in the first round of the 2011 draft and he made the pivotal play at the end of Super Bowl XLVII a season later. He started all 16 games in 2013, but missed the second half of the 2014 playoff season with a lisfranc foot injury.
Smith came back to start all 16 games in 2015, only to be banged up for most of last season — suffering a concussion and battling back problems before catching his cleats in the turf at Gillette Stadium in the Ravens' Dec. 12 loss to the Patriots.
"It was extremely hard because I came back from another injury and that was my second game back and I was playing pretty decent at that point," Smith said. "To sit down and have to watch the rest of that game and then knowing already on the way back to the locker room that it was a high ankle sprain — I'd had it before and I knew exactly what it felt like. I knew I was going to be done for at least three weeks and we only had three games to go."
Still, when he was healthy he played well enough to thoroughly impress veteran safety Eric Weddle, who came over from the San Diego Chargers before last season and isn't afraid to make a bold prediction about the upcoming season.
"Jimmy is one of a kind," Weddle said. "Not many teams have a standout corner that can match up with guys and really play that side of the field and know what you're going get week in and week out. He's a guy who is tough, physical, can run with anyone.
"He has come in with an energy and focus that he wants to play all 16 games. He knows how important he is to our defense and what he brings to it. I'm excited. I think he's going to have his best year yet and really show over a 16-game span how important he is.
The Ravens aren't taking any chances after suffering some frustrating late-season losses in which a defense that was ranked first in the NFL for much of the year became increasingly vulnerable toward the end. Since then, the front office has signed top safety Tony Jefferson and veteran cornerback Brandon Carr while jettisoning several cornerbacks. There might be more help coming from the draft.
That's why Smith is reluctant to portray himself as the most irreplaceable piece in the Ravens secondary.
"I wouldn't necessarily say I'm the key," he said, "but I'm definitely part of this defense that we need. Bringing in corners like Brandon and a safety like Tony to help bolster our secondary is really the key to propelling us to the playoffs."
The big thing for Smith is the ability to take part in a full offseason. He has been with his teammates the past couple of days, grinding through the new strength and conditioning program instituted by Ravens director of performance and recovery Steve Saunders.
"I haven't done OTAs for two years," Smith said. "I haven't done the offseason program. I've been sitting and watching and this is the first time since 2013 really that I've been able to come out here and compete early. It makes a difference when you're sitting out and not training. When you train for a month and go into the season, it's not the same as training for four months and going into the season."
Saunders agrees, and his program is tailored to each body type to give a player such as Smith the best chance to play all 16 games in 2017.
"Jimmy's a freak," Saunders said. "Jimmy's so strong in a lot of ways, it can work against himself. … Some of the stuff he had — the high ankle sprain was a high ankle sprain — what are you going to do? His foot just got caught in a weird position. But for him, I think we can build a better Jimmy for next year and have him more durable and have him faster and stronger, and that's the goal."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.