Jimmy Smith knew what was on everybody’s mind. So before the assembled reporters could ask him a question, Smith had one of his own.
“Can I start off?,” he asked as he settled behind a microphone outside the Ravens’ practice facility following the second full-squad workout Friday. The floor was his.
“The incident that occurred is still a legal matter so I’m not able to discuss that right now,” Smith said in his first public comments since his July 12 arrest for misdemeanor disorderly conduct. “I’ll gladly talk about football. But when it’s handled, I will talk about it and give you my side of the story.”
Smith has been in this spot before. He was considered one of the NFL’s top cornerback prospects, but he found himself answering more questions about his character than his ability in the lead-up to the 2011 draft. Now, as he’s preparing for what many believe will be a breakout season for the fourth-year player, Smith is again dealing with an off-the-field issue.
The fifth Raven to be arrested this offseason, Smith, 25, was cited for failure to obey a lawful order by a police officer following an incident at The Greene Turtle bar and restaurant in Towson.
According to the police report, Smith was assisting a woman who was getting sick in the restaurant’s bathroom. Smith, the report said, was asked by police offers to step aside so medical personnel could tend to the woman, but he refused and became combative, cursing at the officer.
Smith was taken into custody, while the woman, who Smith said was with him for a photo shoot earlier in the evening, was transported to a local hospital. Officers found what they suspected to be a small amount of cocaine in the woman’s purse, according to the police report. A court date for Smith is pending.
Asked if the situation will be a distraction, Smith said, “Not in the least.”
Smith’s character questions — he was cited for third-degree assault and underage drinking violations while he was in college — were well-documented and the likely reason that he was still available for the Ravens with the 27th overall pick in the 2011 draft.
While he struggled with injuries and inconsistency over his first two NFL seasons, team officials have been pleased with how Smith has behaved and handled himself on and off the field. They obviously weren’t happy with his recent arrest, but they don’t feel that it wipes away all the progress that he’s made either.
Smith used to show little emotion and keep largely to himself, also avoiding reporters at all costs. In Friday’s workout, he was vocal throughout and celebrated an interception of Joe Flacco with a dance every bit as elaborate as one teammate Jacoby Jones would do after a return touchdown.
Then, after the practice and after briefly addressing his arrest, he challenged himself to grow up as a player even more.
“It’s time for me to show up — to really show up,” Smith said. “It’s my fourth year, and it’s not about contracts and all that. It’s just time for me to take my game to another level, and I’m ready for that. Just because [we went] 8-8 last year, our defense was ranked 12th overall, and our secondary and our [guys] up front has a lot to do with that. So, we’ve got to be a top-5 defense, top three, No.1 really. In order to do that, it starts with everybody on it, and I’m taking ownership to say that I need to step up with everybody else.”
Just a couple of days into training camp, the Ravens’ cornerback depth is already being tested. Veteran Aaron Ross tore his Achilles while taking the team’s conditioning test and is done for the season. Domonique Franks hasn’t passed the conditioning test and remains on the non-football injury list. Starter Lardarius Webb left Friday’s practice early with back spasms. Chykie Brown, the favorite to replace Corey Graham as the No.3 corner, has struggled in practices, giving up big play after big play.
The Ravens, meanwhile, view Smith as an emerging star. They picked up his fifth-year contract option earlier this offseason, meaning Smith is under contract for two more seasons. However, general manager Ozzie Newsome has voiced a desire to sign him to an extension, though Smith said that his mindset is to “go all two years.”
He started 16 games for the Ravens last season, setting career highs in tackles (58), passes defended (16) and forced fumbles (two), while equaling a career mark with two interceptions. He held Detroit Lions’ star Calvin Johnson, arguably the best receiver in the NFL, to six catches in the Ravens’ 18-16 victory and by season’s end, Smith was playing close to a Pro Bowl level. Yet, he said his goal is to “be better” than last year in every area — causing more turnovers, getting his hands on more balls.
“He’s improved across the board,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. “His technique has come a long way. He’s become a technician of sorts. … He still has a long way to go, but he’s really committed and dedicated to playing the position the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Said secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo: “The guy I see is a very confident corner and you can’t play corner in this league unless you are confident.”
Smith, who missed nine games to injury over his first two seasons, acknowledged that last year’s success was a springboard.
“Honestly, I feel like every year kind of just builds confidence, especially for a cornerback [when] it’s everything,” he said. “Going into this year after having an OK year last year, I feel pretty good. I feel very confident in my skill level, but I feel more confident having a year under my belt, seeing what it’s like, going through all that last year.”
Smith also has added motivation. He became a father to a son last week, an experience that he called humbling and life-altering. Just as he’s embraced the off-the-field responsibility, he’s ready to do the same with a leadership role in the Ravens’ locker room.
“I’m not going to be like, ‘Hoorah-rah,’ but I definitely try to lead by example,” Smith said. “That’s weird to say right now since everything has happened. I feel like as a fourth-year player, if guys look up to you, I think you definitely have to step forward and be some type of leader. It may not be a vocal guy. It’s about what you do on the field and how you carry yourself as a professional.”