OWINGS MILLS — On one of the first plays of team drills during the Baltimore Ravens' organized team activity practice Tuesday, Steve Smith beat Asa Jackson off the line of scrimmage, caught a short pass over the middle and quickly accelerated upfield for what would have likely been a big gain in a game situation.
Smith has had a lot of plays like that during the last three weeks of OTA practices.
He has had acrobatic catches like the twisting catch he made around 40 yards down the field during practice last week. He has made contested catches like he did Tuesday when out-muscling cornerback Lardarius Webb for a touchdown. He has also made one-handed catches, tough catches along the sideline and also routine catches like the one he would have likely turned into a big gain Tuesday.
Smith just turned 35 and had one of the least productive seasons of his 14-year career last season. But to the Ravens, who signed Smith in March, Smith's play has been one of the things they have been most excited about during the last three weeks.
"Steve Smith, I could use some adjectives," Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "He's a pain in a good way. … The guy's a heck of a player. He's made some grabs out here. He's a tough guy. He's everything advertised. I'm glad he's on our team."
Is Smith the same player he once was? Probably not.
He was selected to the Pro Bowl as recently as 2011 and had 73 catches for 1,174 yards in 2012, but his numbers dipped to 64 catches for 745 yards last year, and he was considered expendable enough for the Carolina Panthers to release him in March after he had spent the first 13 seasons of his career in Carolina.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera also said in March that Smith doesn't have the same top-end speed he did in his prime. But Rivera did say Smith is still explosive. And to the Ravens, Smith has looked explosive the last three weeks while also displaying some of the other characteristics that have made him successful during his career.
"Today was his best day with me out here," Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said Tuesday. "And it's just because each day he's getting more comfortable with what we're doing.
"He's just so competitive. He brings an edge to practice to all the time. He challenges people as far as how you play and how you go about doing things. He challenges coaches, too. And every good offense I've been around, I've had a few of those guys saying, 'Get me the ball, coach,' and that's a good thing. That's what you want. But he works to get the ball, so that's what's impressive to me."
It is still just June and the season is three months away, but the Ravens entered the offseason wanting to add a tough, physical wide receiver that can consistently make tough catches and big plays in critical situations. They're even more optimistic now that Smith can be that guy to go along with some of the weapons they already had, like Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, Marlon Brown and tight end Dennis Pitta.
"The [defensive back] that's going to be sitting in front of me, he's going to find out how much I have left in the tank," Smith said in late May, "and he'll find out real quick."