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Once a luxury, cornerback Jimmy Smith is essential to the Ravens’ remaining hopes for 2020

Fans weren’t the only ones who viewed Jimmy Smith as a luxury when the Ravens re-signed their veteran cornerback in March.

Smith analyzed the roster and saw a pair of All-Pro cornerbacks in Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, along with a highly compensated nickel in Tavon Young. He saw established safeties who never left the field in Earl Thomas III and Chuck Clark, along with a gifted prospect named DeShon Elliott who needed reps to develop.

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“I could do the math,” he said, laughing.

Smith also knew how quickly attrition could hit an NFL secondary. He’d seen it too many times in the years since the Ravens picked him No. 27 overall in the 2011 draft. In some instances, Smith was the No. 1 cornerback whose injuries forced the front office to scramble for replacements.

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So is he surprised that, 11 weeks into his 10th NFL season, he’s again a linchpin of the team’s roster?

“I mean, I didn’t expect it,” he said. “But you know it’s something that can always happen because of the simple fact of how often defensive backs get injured. I could easily be thrown back into the situation I was in before.”

It’s possible Smith has never played better or been more important to the Ravens than he is now. First, he gave the team a cushion at safety after Thomas was abruptly released in the preseason. He used his size to blanket tight ends and did it well enough that a new chapter in his career seemed to be opening. Then, Young went down with a knee injury, and the Ravens resumed using Humphrey to cover the slot. The dominoes pushed Smith back to his familiar spot on the outside, and he picked up like he’d never left.

Through 11 weeks, Pro Football Focus graded Smith as the eighth best all-around corner in the league and the ninth best in coverage. Given the various roles he filled and the stability he provided, he built a stealth case as the Ravens’ first-half Most Valuable Player. If his sore ankle allows, he’ll play a vital part Sunday as the Ravens try to cover the Pittsburgh Steelers’ many gifted wide receivers.

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“I think Jimmy is having a Pro Bowl season — I really do,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “What he’s done, and the versatility that he’s shown us week in and week out, it’s been awesome.”

Smith’s excellence doesn’t always show up in the box score. He has no interceptions, no forced fumbles and just one pass defended, while Peters and Humphrey have combined to force 11 turnovers. But those who study the Ravens on film see his essential contributions.

“It’s hard to take your eyes off of Marcus, and it’s hard to take your eyes off of Marlon,” said NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth, who was scheduled to provide color commentary on the Ravens’ Thanksgiving matchup with the Steelers before it was moved to Sunday. “Jimmy, on the other hand, has just been a guy that, when he’s healthy — and that hasn’t been always — he’s been as good as anybody. … Who gets more attention than Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters? Those guys are hard to not watch, and yet that means Jimmy and just his consistent, game-in and game-out top-flight play can get ignored at times.”

The Ravens re-signed Smith for a modest $3.5 million, significantly less than the $10.3 million per-year average of his previous deal. The move received little attention compared to their trade for defensive end Calais Campbell or their decision to place the franchise tag on outside linebacker Matthew Judon. But it’s fair to ask where they’d be without their veteran cornerback.

“You think about Jimmy Smith, who’s missed at least four games each of the last four years, and he’s now the security blanket, the rock,” Collinsworth said.

For Ravens coach John Harbaugh, Smith’s performance has simply reaffirmed long-held beliefs: “He’s one of the best corners in the league; I’ve always said that. I think he’s playing to that level this year.”

It’s not as if the season has been clear sailing for the 32-year-old Smith. He’s appeared on the injury report every week but one, and his tendons torment him even on the best days. He accepts this as his baseline setting after a decade of NFL games.

“I think how the season started, there was no preseason so my body had to get activated fast,” he said. “I went from a few plays in practice to a ton of plays in the game, immediately. I got a little banged up early and then I’ve been dealing with tendinitis, just trying to get in front of it. One thing with all that stuff is you need rest, and obviously during the season, you don’t get much of that.”

Smith’s body has always been the football equivalent of a fussy sports car — an evocation of smooth power when it’s running but up on blocks more than he or anyone around him would like. He employs an army of specialists — massage, dry-needle, soft-tissue, pelvic-floor, tendinitis of late — to keep it tuned. He worked with his trainer to shed about 15 pounds in the offseason, hoping to reduce strain on his joints and tendons.

In his early years with the Ravens, Smith observed the lengths to which teammates such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed went to manage their bodies away from the team’s facility. He believes any player seeking a lengthy NFL career should invest in outside medical and training advice.

Still, his legs betray him.

Sometimes, it’s the chronic soreness in his quadriceps tendons. Of late, he’s dealt with Achilles tendon soreness that forced him to miss the Ravens’ loss to the New England Patriots.

“I think what if I didn’t miss the games I’ve missed? Where would my career have been?” he said. “It’s just a crappy situation that I have to keep fighting through. I do the best I can to take care of my body, but it is what it is, and I can’t always figure it out.”

Smith’s troubles have gone beyond injuries.

In 2018, he was suspended four games after an NFL investigation found evidence of “threatening and emotionally abusive behaviors” toward his ex-girlfriend. Smith’s situation forced the Ravens to reckon with promises they’d made (in the wake of releasing running back Ray Rice) to avoid players with histories of abuse against women. But the team stuck with Smith, saying he was “taking the proper steps to improve.”

Smith said he learned from his suspension and is leading a “more settled” life. He’s closing on a house in Stevenson and has his children with him.

One person who remained particularly loyal to him was Harbaugh, the only NFL head coach he’s played for and a consistent advocate of his talents.

“We’ve had a lot of years together — his whole career, ever since he came in,” Harbaugh said. “I spend a lot of time with the secondary, anyway, and the corners a lot. So, we’ve had just many conversations about football, but also about family, all the things. Jimmy, he’s been a guy who … we’ve just valued each other’s input and advice in that way. That’s a relationship that I really value very highly.”

Smith knows he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. The injuries and the years have taught him to cherish these moments when he can still run step for step with a receiver as his team fights for a playoff berth.

“I have moments now, like during the Indianapolis [Colts] game, I was sitting on the bench really taking it in,” he said. “Because it don’t last forever. And I just kind of had that moment of, ‘Wow, I’m still in the NFL and this is what I do for a living.’ I was appreciating it.”

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RAVENS@STEELERS

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Sunday, 1:15 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4 Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Steelers by 5

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