Through the first half of the 2014 season, Jimmy Smith looked like a Pro Bowl cornerback. He was realizing the massive potential the Ravens saw in him as a first-round pick in 2011.
That player has been missing for the past year and a half due to injuries.
As Smith is set to begin his sixth NFL season, he and those around him feel like they could rediscover that top cornerback again.
"He's 100 percent healthy," Head Coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. "Now if he can get all of the quickness, and the speed, and change of direction back to where it was, then we'll have the Jimmy Smith that we all know."
Commendably, Smith started all 16 games last year despite his surgically repaired right foot (Lisfranc) not feeling right. But he wasn't the shutdown cornerback the Ravens hoped for when they signed him to a four-year contract extension last offseason.
Smith notched* *54 tackles, 10 defensed passes and three interceptions. His top highlight came in Week 1 when he leapt to pick off former Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and returned it for a touchdown.
Smith's foot didn't allow him to make many more plays like that, however. That's why he went under the knife again this offseason to have the screws removed from his foot. It knocked him out of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and minicamp, but finding comfort took precedence.
Smith was back on the field at the start of training camp, and he's noticed an immediate difference from a year ago.
"I feel way better than I did last year. My foot's not even close to what it was last year," Smith said. "Now it's just getting back and knocking some rust off, but I feel good."
Smith has been beaten a few times for touchdowns in training camp thus far, but it's not something to be concerned about. There's a difference between being healthy and explosive. One leads to the other, and for the first time in a while, Smith is healthy enough to reach peak physical form.
Knowing that his body will respond when he needs it gives the already confident Smith even more comfort.
"Confidence is everything in football. A corner with no confidence is going to get beat every play," Smith said. "It's huge the fact that I can run and jump again, and cut."
Even if Smith was operating at 90 percent last year, that's not good enough at such a physically taxing position. It's especially not good enough when you're expected to be the No. 1 cornerback.
It seemed opponents figured out that Smith wasn't his old self last season. They targeted him early and often throughout the year.
"These guys are on a razors edge every play. At any point in time, if they slip up, that razor is right there," Harbaugh said. "For a corner not to be 100 percent – not to be as fast or as quick – is tough. That's where we've got to get him to, and he's working to get there."
The Ravens have yet to face any other teams, but wide receiver Kamar Aiken said he has noticed a difference in Smith's play.
"Last year, I guess he was still playing through it," Aiken said. "You could still see that he was a little gimpy. Now he's moving fluidly. He looks like the old Jimmy to me."