Even though Torrey Smith set franchise rookie records in 2011 with 50 receptions, 841 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns and ranked among the NFL's top five rookies in each of those categories, there is a perception among some pigskin pundits outside Baltimore that Smith is nothing more than a deep threat. For example, I did a radio interview with a Jacksonville radio station Thursday morning, and the host dismissed him -- not maliciously, but actually kind of respectfully -- as being just that. But Smith has impressed me and I'm guessing many of my peers in the local media with his obvious development throughout the offseason. He has also gotten the attention of Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who raved about Smith's character, saying he will not be outworked (he had similar praise for fellow second-year receiver LaQuan Williams, too). Smith, like many Ravens players, was a regular participant in the team's offseason conditioning program and voluntary workouts in the spring. His route running was clearly a major emphasis, and he told me at one point during OTAs that wide receivers coach Jim Hostler was teaching him how to keep his balance better in and out of cuts so his defenders would be the one who were caught off-balance. Smith has also gotten better at catching the football after a few clanked off of his chest last season. In 18 games, Smith had eight drops, according to Pro Football Focus, including four in the win in Pittsburgh in which he drove a dagger into the hearts of the Steelers with a late game-winning touchdown. (Veteran Anquan Boldin actually had nine drops last season, so it's not like Smith was alone in his pass-catching struggles.) But throughout the spring and training camp, Smith has been attacking the football in the air and making strong grabs with his hands away from his body. While Ravens fans aren't lucky enough to have a sideline view of training camp anymore, they got a glimpse Thursday night of what we have all been seeing from Smith out at the Under Armour Performance Center. He hauled in a game-high eight passes for 103 yards. None of those receptions were made beyond 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, though Smith might still be running if Joe Flacco hadn't overthrown him as he sprinted down the right sideline on the first drive of the game. He had a 17-yard gain on a comeback route and ran a sharp deep-out route for a 16-yard gain in the first quarter. He caught three short passes underneath the Jacksonville coverage in the second quarter. And in the third quarter, he caught a pass over the middle on a crossing pattern and turned up the field for a gain of 32 yards. Those crossing patterns could be particularly dangerous going forward if Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron makes them a staple in the playbook. Of course, the best things going for Smith are still his fleet feet, which are why he will make a major impact on the opponents' game plans even if he never rounded out the rest of his game. He has elite speed, forcing defenses to shift at least one deep safety his way and keeping cornerbacks on their heels. We saw that a few times on Thursday, which is why he was able to get wide open while running intermediate routes toward the sidelines. "I guess it definitely benefits me a lot because there is so much that opens up, the underneath routes," Smith said. "I understand that's a part of the process, and that's why I've got to continue to work on everything and get better, so it's kind of tough on them having to respect [me] going deep and [allow] underneath routes." If Smith can learn how to run a comeback route half as well as Derrick Mason -- and let's be honest, few, if any, players ever ran it better than Mason -- he'll be a tough matchup for many of the league's best cornerbacks. This isn't going to be a regular space for predictions, but I'll throw one out there since it is the preseason: I wouldn't be surprised if Smith becomes Flacco's favorite target this season and tops 1,000 receiving yards.
Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.