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Troy Smith to get prime opporunity

Troy Smith's drama-filled run with the Ravens comes full circle at Edward Jones Dome on Thursday night.

It was two years ago at this spot where an illness forced him out of the starting quarterback competition. Now, Smith is battling to remain on the team as the third string.

In Thursday's preseason finale, the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner has a prime opportunity to prove to the Ravens — and the rest of the NFL — that he is a viable quarterback at this level. Smith is expected to start and play the entire game against the St. Louis Rams, according to a league source.

"I think all games, especially preseason games for quarterbacks that haven't had a lot of time in the regular season, are the biggest games of their lives. Whether they know it or not, they are," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Some guys think Michigan-Ohio State or Iowa-Illinois. That's big, but for some of these guys, this is the biggest game of their lives."

Of all the players on the Ravens' bubble, no one's situation is more intriguing than Smith's.

Some observers believe he is safe because his athleticism and knowledge of the system are assets. Others think Smith has to convince the Ravens to give him a roster spot over the likes of linebacker Jason Phillips, wide receiver David Reed or nose tackle Brandon McKinney. And there's another group that wonders if the Ravens are trying to showcase Smith in order to entice a trade.

So, could this be Smith's last game with the Ravens?

"Troy's a good player," coach John Harbaugh said. "The thing we have to decide across the board is who are the best 53 players we have. But Troy is our third quarterback. Obviously, he's played very well in the preseason; I think he makes plays. He does bring a unique ability. He gets out of trouble and makes plays with his feet and with his arms. We've always liked Troy."

The Ravens haven't really ever given Smith a strong vote of confidence since selecting him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft.

After he started the final two games in 2007, the Ravens drafted a quarterback (Joe Flacco) only a few months later. And after Smith served as the backup the past two seasons, the Ravens signed a new one (Marc Bulger) to a $3.8 million contract. Smith's career has seemed to move backward instead of forward with the Ravens.

Team officials appeared willing to give up Smith this offseason, when the Ravens placed a fifth-round tender on him as a restricted free agent. That meant it would only require a team to give up a fifth-rounder to grab Smith. But no one called.

Smith scoffed at the notion that this game — his most extended action in three years — is an audition for the Ravens or any other team.

"I'm not in this business to try to show anybody anything," Smith said. "As a person, as a man, I think once you get into vendettas with other people, then things don't happen the way that you want them to. As a quarterback and as a man, I know what I need to do and achieve and I'm fine with that."

The biggest knock on Smith has been his accuracy. Because he's been able to run whenever there was no one immediately open, he hasn't been forced to stand in the pocket and make the tough throws in tight windows.

This summer, Smith has made strides as a pure passer. He's trying to stay ahead of NFL defenses, which will eventually make him beat them with his arm.

"You can be a scramble-around guy for a while, but you can only do it so long," Cameron said. "They're going to make you prove that you can execute the passing game from the pocket. That's where all of a sudden, some guys are running around this league doing great and then they fall off the face of earth. I like the fact that [Smith's] learning to play in the pocket and still has the ability to do things outside the pocket. He's learning how to stand in there and throw the ball with accuracy."

One of Smith's biggest strengths is his leadership. His confidence as a rookie instantly won over veterans. And he still has a strong core of supporters in the locker room.

"He has had time to grow, time to see the offense and time to become a true NFL quarterback even though people try to put in him in a box," said wide receiver Marcus Smith, who caught a touchdown from Smith in Saturday's preseason game. "He's evolved his game and he's gotten better every year. He's a confident and fun quarterback. You're always having fun with him."

Smith's summer got off to a rocky start. He was inaccurate through most of training camp.

But Smith turned it around in the preseason, where he has 16 of 25 passes for 151 yards and one touchdown (a 93.9 passer rating). He has also rushed for 41 yards on 14 carries, scoring one touchdown.

Some players believe Smith would be a better quarterback if a team committed to him and gave him extended playing time. As Flacco's backup the past two seasons, Smith has thrown just eight passes.

"He can play this game. He can be a legitimate starting quarterback in the NFL," wide receiver Mark Clayton said. "When your time is [limited], it's tough."

It seems as if there's been more action for Smith off the field than on it. In 2008, he was hospitalized with a severe infection to his tonsils. That led to a blood clot in his neck and a lung infection, the combination of which caused him to lose 20 pounds.

Then, at the end of the 2009 season, Smith's agent requested to be traded from the Ravens. Ralph Cindrich, who represented Smith at the time, talked about how Smith would be willing to crawl to Cleveland to play for the Browns. Smith eventually fired Cindrich after there was no movement.

Entering a critical game for his NFL career, Smith said he isn't worrying about whether he makes the Ravens.

"With this being my fourth year, and having to go through some of the things that I've been through, it's a business, first and foremost," Smith said. "You can't do anything about that. The only thing that you can control and have an effect on is what you do on a daily basis. I continuously get myself together as a player and as a man and as a quarterback, and that's what I worry about."

Note: The deal for cornerback Josh Wilson, whom the Ravens traded a conditional fifth-round draft pick for cornerback on Tuesday, was completed Wednesday after he passed a physical. The pick could improve to a fourth-rounder based on the number of starts made by Wilson. It's unknown how many starts will trigger the fourth-round pick. The Ravens moved rookie fullback Mike McLaughlin to injured reserve to make room on the roster for him.

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/jamisonhensley

What to watch: Ravens at St. Louis Rams

POSITION

Kicker. This competition has been too close to call. Billy Cundiff is 3-for-3 in the preseason, hitting from 26, 42 and 25 yards. Shayne Graham is 2-for-3, good from 32 and 24 yards, and missing from 50.

VETERAN

Wide receiver Demetrius Williams. The injury to Donte' Stallworth provides another opening for Williams to stay with the Ravens. He is still battling a sprained ankle, but Williams needs to make a statement in the final preseason game.

ROOKIE

Tight end Ed Dickson. With Todd Heap not expected to play, Dickson should get his most extended action of the preseason. A natural pass catcher, he ranks third on the team this preseason with seven catches.

ON THE BUBBLE

Outside linebacker Edgar Jones. A tight end last season, Jones is trying to hang on as a linebacker this year. He was fourth in special teams tackles last season and is tied for first this preseason.

INJURY REPORT

Out: OT Jared Gaither (back), WR Mark Clayton (concussion), WR Donte' Stallworth (broken foot), NT Terrence Cody (left knee), C-G David Hale (bruised tailbone), G Daniel Sanders (left shoulder) and DB Marcus Paschal (right leg).

Doubtful: CB Lardarius Webb (right knee).

Questionable: OT Oniel Cousins (head), CB Fabian Washington (ribs), FS Tom Zbikowski (bruised thigh). FB Mike McLaughlin (hip flexor), OT Stefan Rodgers (undisclosed).

Players on PUP: FS Ed Reed (hip), LB Brendon Ayanbadejo (quads) and RB Matt Lawrence (knee).

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