Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith believes he'll have his toughest test of the year this Sunday against Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones.
The No. 6 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Jones was a Pro Bowler in 2012. This year, he's third in the NFL in receiving yards (604), and tops in big plays over 20 yards (13).
"Give him his credit, he's exactly what they thought he was going to be," Smith said.
Now the same can be said of Smith.
Smith was drafted in the same class as Jones. Even though he went 21 picks later, the expectations for Smith were also extremely high. He was immediately labeled a shutdown corner in the making, a future Pro Bowler.
Three years later, Smith may be on his way to his first postseason honors.
Asked if he believed he belonged amongst the game's top cornerbacks, Smith said, "In my heart I feel that way. I always feel that way. But I'm not going to go out in public and say, 'I'm the No. 1 corner.' That's not me."
Smith is the seventh-highest rated cornerback in the NFL his year, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). In pass coverage, he's tied for fourth best.
Per PFF, Smith has only surrendered 18 receptions for 135 yards in six games this season. That's an average of three catches for 22.5 yards per game. Opponents have yet to score a touchdown against him. Opposing signal-callers have a 50.5 quarterback rating when throwing at him.
A couple other upper-echelon cornerbacks came into the league at the same time as Smith.
Arizona's Patrick Peterson (No. 5 overall) has gone to three Pro Bowls. He's given up 17 catches for 248 yards and four touchdowns this season. Opposing quarterbacks have a 132.4 rating when going at him.
Seattle's Richard Sherman (No. 154 overall) went to the Pro Bowl last year and is the self-professed best cornerback in the game. He's allowed 10 catches for 187 yards and one touchdown. Opposing quarterbacks have a 99.4 quarterback rating when targeting him.
For much of the season, Smith hasn't been targeted by opposing quarterbacks. Part of that was because with Lardarius Webb injured for the first five weeks, they went at his replacements instead of Smith.
But with Webb back, the Bucs went at Smith 10 times last Sunday. Smith responded with his first interception of the year. The Falcons have taken notice.
"I think Jimmy [has a] great skillset to play the corner position," Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith said. "You talk about putting a corner together, 6–2, 210 pounds, 4.4 [second 40-yard dash], and has the ability to stay in press and mirror man. That's what you're looking for in a corner. And that's really his measurables. I think he's ascending to be one of the top corners in the NFL."
For Smith, it's been about developing more than measurables. He had those traits when he first entered the league. The key has been developing the rest of his game.
Injuries held Smith back during his rookie year. He was beaten out by veteran Corey Graham as a sophomore. Smith started to break out last year, and has been even more dominant early this season.
"It took some time," Smith said. "I wasn't all Big-12 my first season playing [in college]. It took me time to learn it, and that's how I learn still I guess. I'm a person that had to get acclimated to the NFL.
"So you kind of have to learn how it works in the NFL. Concepts are a little different, quarterbacks are way better in the NFL. It was a process for me basically learning how to play corner at an elite level."
Smith hears the buzz surrounding him this season. He knows that if he can contain Jones, it will likely only grow louder.
"I would be lying if I didn't smirk when I hear some of it," Smith said.
"Honestly, I really try my hardest to keep my head down. I don't want too much to hit me. I don't want people to put me in the spotlight, just because at any moment [if] I have a bad game, the world turns on me. I just try to keep focused, take each game by itself."