Smith plucked the pass out of the air and took off heading the opposite direction during Wednesday’s organized team activities (OTAs) practice. He weaved through traffic and danced into the end zone with a flip of the football in front of Flacco.
It was exactly the kind of play Smith expects to see more often this season.
“As a corner, you want to have 15 interceptions,” Smith said. “That might not happen as a man-to-man corner, but you want to watch the film to see exactly what you did wrong, or how you can make the game a little bit better.”
The fourth-year cornerback is coming off the best season of his career, where he started every game and was one of the Ravens’ top defenders. He had 58 tackles and 16 passes defensed, and he limited some of the game’s top receivers like Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green.
The season quieted criticism that Smith wasn’t living up to his billing as a former first-round pick.
But when Smith looks back at his 2013 campaign, the statistic that sticks out to him is his two interceptions. And that’s where he expects to improve.
“I think I started coming into my own as the season progressed,” Smith said. “Obviously going back I’m probably the worst critic of myself, and I think I could have played a lot better. I could have had a lot more turnovers. I think it was an OK year, and I think I should build off it.”
To increase his turnover production, Smith has spent this offseason working to get a better grasp on NFL offenses. He’s dug into film study to understand how opponents try to attack the Ravens, and what he can do to counteract it.
“You want to get a few plays a game where you can steal something, so that’s more of a focus,” Smith said. “I know our defense, and I try to get better at mastering that. At the same time I want to understand the offense and what they’re trying to do to me so I can make more plays for our team.”
Head Coach John Harbaugh pointed to Smith’s improvement on the mental side of the game as a key part in his development.
“To me, confidence follows talent, but it also follows understanding your position really well,” Harbaugh said. “He, more than ever since he’s been here, understands how to play corner. He’s square, his eyes are in the right place, he’s got the right leverage, he knows where his help is – it makes playing a lot easier. You’re not chasing your tail out there as a corner. That’s what’s bringing that confidence.”
Getting to a point where he’s in the conversation as the team’s top cornerback – he and
When he did crack the lineup, he had to make up for lost time and opposing quarterbacks tested him. Smith acknowledged that his career started slower than expected with the injuries, but now he’s poised to put himself into Pro Bowl consideration.
The Ravens showed their belief in Smith this offseason when they picked up the fifth-year option on his contract, which will pay him the average of cornerbacks who have the third to 25th-highest salaries in the league for 2014.
The team picked up the option well ahead of the deadline, but Smith cautioned against putting too much stock into the move.
“This is football. That means they like me for this year,” he said. “Hopefully they like me for years after to come.”
The arrow is clearly pointing up on Smith. He’s emerged as a go-to defender with star potential, and he has expectations of getting into an elite class of cornerbacks.
Just how high is the ceiling for him?
“Can you touch the sky?” Smith responded when asked that question. “That’s how high it is.”