Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith was being asked Tuesday about getting older — 31 next month, his ninth NFL season this fall, likely his 100th career game this September — when he started to chuckle. He’d noticed a theme to the questioning.
"God, this old talk!" he blurted out to no one in particular after the first of three mandatory minicamp practices, looking skyward briefly.
As it turned out, this question wasn’t even about Smith’s age. It was about Brandon Carr, who’s even older. The cornerback turned 33 last month. He’s already started 176 straight regular-season games, the most among active NFL defenders and likely more than some starting secondaries come Week 1.
If the Ravens’ own stifling unit were even average last year, this “old talk” would have been a talking point throughout the offseason. But Smith and Carr helped anchor the NFL’s top-ranked defense last season. To them, age is just a number; to reporters and fans, it’s a source of intrigue and potential worry. How, in a so-called young man’s game, does a defensive back on the wrong side of 30 keep going and going?
On the Ravens’ roster, only punter Sam Koch, guard Marshal Yanda and long snapper Morgan Cox are older than Carr. Safety-linebacker Anthony Levine Sr. is 32. New safety Earl Thomas turned 30 last month. There are younger standouts in the secondary, of course, but the veterans are, for the NFL, long in the tooth.
“The standard is high for those guys,” coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday of the secondary. “I mean, we've got a lot of resources committed in the secondary, and we think those guys are really, really good players. We value the secondary. We value coverage and we think it's really important with the defense that we play and the way we structure our defense. So we love having those guys back there, and I expect those guys to play at the very highest level in the National Football League this year.”
It will be tough to one-up last year. The Ravens finished second in average passer rating allowed and third in Football Outsiders’ pass-defense efficiency. When the Ravens' season met its end, the Los Angeles Chargers scored 23 points, but not because they threw all over them. Philip Rivers needed 32 attempts to finish with 160 passing yards, none of which ended in the end zone.
In Baltimore, the path to self-improvement starts with self-care. Carr, who ditched his dreadlocks for a closer cut — “It's time for a change,” he said Tuesday. “Get some good energy” — is religious about his stretching regimen. He enjoyed his offseason “peace,” as he put it, but showed up for the Ravens’ voluntary organized team activities nonetheless, eager to pass on his accumulated knowledge to “the next young stud out there.”
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Smith said he feels “great,” or at least as great as a father of three young children can feel. He didn’t miss a game last season because of injury for the first time since 2015. (A suspension for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy cost him the first four games of 2018.) A full offseason of good health seemingly has been restorative. He hopes the wisdom he’s absorbed can be preventative.
The older he’s gotten, Smith explained, the more he’s paid attention to his health, a recurring issue throughout his career. “You start to realize the years run out pretty fast,” he said, so he’s enlisted the help of Carr’s nutritionist, as mindful of fatty foods as he is deep balls.
“When you’re young, you can eat chicken wings, hot wings, pizza, then go out and play a game, and there’s no problem,” he said. “The older you get, you start to actually feel like one candy bar kind of slowed me down today. You definitely have to pay attention to that. … When you’re young, you don’t really notice it until you start getting older.”
The Ravens’ defensive backs are investments worth protecting. Smith, entering the last year of his four-year contract extension, has a salary cap hit of $15.85 million in 2019, highest on the team. Safety Tony Jefferson is third ($12.7 million). Carr and Thomas are tied for sixth ($7 million). Cornerback Marlon Humphrey, a former first-round pick, might be the most talented player on the defense, if not the 90-man roster altogether.
Even as the defense was transformed this offseason, losing powerful edge rushers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith and a stabilizing force in inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, the back end was mostly untouched. Safety Eric Weddle was cut, but Thomas might be an upgrade as a deep-lying safety. Humphrey recalled last month how defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has warned players that “No team is the same,” but the secondary is as close as it gets.
It’s now just a little older. And maybe a little bit wiser about how to keep that from showing.
“They believe in us,” Smith said. “[Owner Steve] Bisciotti believes in us. Our coaching staff and the people upstairs, they believe in our secondary. We've got a lot of vets back there and we kind of have to be the driving force for the defense, since we’re the ones with the most experience.”