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Evolution of a cornerback

Evolution of a cornerback
Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith tackles Tampa Bay's Louis Murphy. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

When Jimmy Smith was 13 years old, his older brother, Ryan Smalls, told him he would be a first-round draft pick and NFL cornerback one day.

"It's funny but I believed it," said Smith, who never had played until his brother took him to an open field near their Oklahoma home and challenged Smith to stay in front of him. "I don't know why I did. But I promise you, he said it, so I believed it."

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Smith's belief in his ability never has wavered. To him, an uneven rookie year with the Ravens was a struggle but not a setback. An injury-marred second year tested his patience but not his confidence. Even now, when some of the same people who called him a draft bust are including his name in conversations about the league's best cornerbacks, Smith shrugs. This is what he expected.

"I never thought for a second that I was going to be some bum or some bust," Smith said. "I always believed in my talent, my ability and my smarts. It's just all coming together now."

When the Atlanta Falcons and their high-powered offense arrive at M&T Bank Stadium to play the Ravens today, Smith will face perhaps his biggest challenge all season. The Falcons are just 2-4, but they have a quality quarterback in Matt Ryan and one of the league's best wide receivers.

Smith will likely find himself matched up against Julio Jones. It's yet another opportunity for him to prove he's become one of the game's most valued commodities: a shutdown cornerback.

"Watch him. Watch his film," Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said of Smith. "Just watch him play."

Eric Allen, a six-time Pro Bowl cornerback who is now an ESPN analyst, said Smith is in the second tier of the NFL's top corners, behind Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks, Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals, Joe Haden of the Cleveland Browns and Darrelle Revis of the New England Patriots.

CBS analyst Solomon Wilcots, a former NFL corner, says Smith is in the "elite category" now.

"Jimmy is playing better than Joe Haden. He's playing better than any corner in that division," said Wilcots, a frequent color commentator for Ravens games. "Joe Haden is a great player. He's a Pro Bowl corner, but Jimmy is better. Jimmy is longer; he's taller. I give Joe a lot of respect, but right now, Jimmy is the best corner in the AFC North, and he's playing as well as any cornerback in the league."

According to Pro Football Focus, Smith, 26, grades out as the league's seventh-best cornerback overall and the fourth-best in coverage. In six games, he's been targeted 34 times and allowed 18 catches for 135 yards and no touchdowns. He picked off a pass in the Ravens' blowout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week.

By comparison, Sherman has been thrown at 17 times, resulting in 10 catches for 187 yards and a touchdown. Haden has allowed 21 catches on 29 targets for 329 yards and two scores.

"I think [Smith's] one of the best players in the league," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "And he carries himself that way."

Sherman, Revis and Peterson never have been shy about voicing their opinions on where they stand in the cornerback hierarchy. Smith finds the debate humorous. He acknowledges after some prodding that he believes he belongs in that company.

"In my heart, I feel that way," he said. "But I'm not going to go out in public and [say], 'I'm the No.1 corner!' That's not me."

Smith knows how quickly fortunes and reputations can change. Coming out of Colorado, he was considered one of the top defensive backs in the 2011 draft, but questions about his character and attitude contributed to his still being on the board when the Ravens picked at No.27 overall.

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He missed nine games because of injuries during his first two seasons, returning in 2012 in time to outmuscle Michael Crabtree on the final play of the Ravens' goal-line stand against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Still, he wasn't a full-time starter until last year, and the way he defended Detroit Lions Pro Bowl wideout Calvin Johnson started to change the narrative of his career.

"Jimmy has a great skill set to play the corner position," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "When you talk about putting a corner together — 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, 4.4 [speed in the 40-yard dash] — that's what you're looking for. I think he's ascending to be one of the top corners in the NFL."

Jimmy Smith says his emergence is a result of improved technique and increased confidence. He rarely was tested at Colorado, so the transition to the NFL brought things he never had seen before. He initially struggled with his footwork and to defend smaller receivers. But he decided last year to get back to the pressing, physical style that had served him so well in the past.

Even with the league's increased emphasis on calling defensive-holding and illegal-contact penalties this season, Smith has been flagged just three times. Wilcots said that's an indication Smith has learned to cover receivers with his feet, rather than having to rely on his hands.

"His technique now is almost flawless," Wilcots said. "He stays square on the wide receiver. He's such a big guy and he's physical, he's confident and he's not afraid. He understands how to disrupt the timing of the passing game and not allow the receiver to get to where he wants to be when the quarterback expects him to be there. You can see it around the red zone. He's so good in that area."

Allen, an NFL cornerback for 14 seasons, breaks down the position into three phases. The first phase is dealing with the receiver through his release. The second is recognizing the route being run, and the third is making a play on the ball. When Allen watches Smith on film, he sees an increasingly confident cornerback who has benefited from working on his technique and watching film.

"He's going through the process of figuring out how to best get through those three phases and at the end be able to come up with an interception, not just a breakup," Allen said. "Once the [interception] numbers start to increase, that's when the general public will put him on the map. But when I'm looking at film, he's doing everything well."

Smith has five career interceptions, but as defensive coordinator Dean Pees observed, the cornerback's pressing style — and how the Ravens rely heavily on man-to-man coverage in the secondary — doesn't lend itself to a corner getting a lot of interceptions.

Pees is plenty content to have Smith shadow top receivers such as the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown, the Carolina Panthers' Kelvin Benjamin and the Buccaneers' Vincent Jackson. None had big days against the Ravens.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, the leading passer in the NFL, completed just one of five passes against Smith for 2 yards in the Oct. 5 game against the Ravens. Today, Smith expects to be much busier, especially if he finds himself shadowing Jones.

"Every game to me is a proving ground, no matter who lines up," Smith said. "I don't want Joe Schmo to come off the sideline and beat me because that's even worse. I don't want anybody to beat me. That's just my mindset for everybody."

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Baltimore Sun reporter Jon Meoli contributed to this article.

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