Za’Darius Smith appears to be backing up his coach’s claim.
Last Thursday, Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale was effusive in his praise of the outside linebacker, saying, “‘Z’ had the best training camp I’ve ever seen him have since I’ve been here.”
Smith followed up Martindale’s comment by tying middle linebacker C.J. Mosley for the team lead in tackles with five and adding a sack of Buffalo Bills rookie quarterback Josh Allen in the third quarter of Sunday’s 47-3 pummeling at M&T Bank Stadium.
“We all have had a great preseason, but I just think for myself, I’ve been going hard each and every day because this year is a big year for me, and we all know that,” the 6-foot-4, 272-pound Smith said Monday. “It’s contract season. So for me to go out there and take every snap like it’s my last and go all the way out, you’re going to see that a lot this year from me.”
This is a pivotal time for Smith, who is playing out the final year of the $2.7 million contract he signed after getting selected in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL draft. He has 11 career sacks, including 5 ½ as a rookie in 2015, the fourth most for a Ravens rookie.
Part of a group that includes starters Terrell Suggs and Matthew Judon and backups Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser, Smith acknowledged feeling some pressure about cementing his NFL future.
“Somewhat there is, but it’s all for the good,” he said. “There are a lot of guys that wish they were in this situation of being in a contract year. They say a lot of guys don’t even make it to Year 3 or Year 4. So I’m blessed to have the opportunity to go out there and fight and be in a contract year.”
Even if the Ravens allow him to test the free-agent market, Smith, who turned 26 on Saturday, figures to draw suitors. But he insisted that his objective is continuing his employment with the Ravens.
“I wish I could stay here forever,” he said. “I wish I could stay here as long as [Suggs] has been here. I know that’s something my agent asked me. He said, ‘Z, do you want to stay a Raven?’ And I said, ‘Man, once a Raven, always a Raven.’ So hopefully, Coach can get something going, and I hope [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome] and [team president] Dick Cass can make that happen. That’s a big birthday wish though.”