About a month ago, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Jimmy Smith is one of the best cornerbacks, and that he’ll prove over the next couple years to be maybe the best. A reporter followed up, asking if Harbaugh meant the Ravens’ best cornerback.
“No, I’m talking about the best in the league,” he clarified.
Fast forward to this week and the media is being recognized as the lockdown, shutdown – whatever you want to call it – cornerback the Ravens envisioned when they drafted him in the first round in 2011. If he continues this pace, he should make his first career Pro Bowl in his seventh season.
Smith leads all NFL cornerbacks in defensive passer rating (24.5), per Pro Football Focus. He’s given up just 12 receptions for 100 yards and zero touchdowns in the first half of the season.
He has handcuffed some of the league’s best wide receivers and added three takeaways, including two touchdowns. He had a 50-yard pick-six against the Miami Dolphins a week ago.
“Now, everyone is getting onboard,” Harbaugh said with a chuckle. “It’s good that you guys saw the light.”
For Smith, it’s always been a question of consistency.
Smith was injured on the very first play of his NFL career on kickoff coverage, and the injuries haven’t stopped since. He’s missed 23 regular-season games over the past six seasons. That’s nearly four a year, or a quarter of the season.
A Lisfranc foot injury in 2014 took longer than expected to completely bounce back from, and when Smith finally felt fully healthy last year, he suffered an ankle injury in Week 14. His absence was a major reason why Baltimore lost three of its final four games and fell short of the playoffs.
As the age-old saying goes, there’s ability and availability. Smith has never been lacking in the prior.
The Ravens knew they found a prototypical corner at pick No. 27 in 2011. Smith stands at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds. Even now, as he’s been hobbled by Achilles soreness, Smith is plenty athletically gifted enough to play at a very high level.
“He has some measurables that not a lot of guys that play his position have,” wide receiver Jeremy Maclin said. “When he’s healthy, he’s one of the best in the league, and he’s proven that.”
But what’s taken Smith’s game to another level this year, his teammates and coaches say, is his improvement off the field.
This offseason, Smith ditched his typical offseason training program to stay in Baltimore and work out with safety Eric Weddle and others at the Under Armour Performance Center. He spends a lot of time on his training and recovery.
His personal life is also stable. Smith’s second son, Jalen, was born about a month ago on Oct. 4. Smith returned a fumble 47 yards for a touchdown five days later in Oakland.
“I think everything is in harmony for him,” safety Eric Weddle said. “He can just focus on playing well, doing his job. It’s been awesome to see his growth and see him reach his potential.”
Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said he’s seen more commitment from Smith in the film room. Smith intently studies each one of his opponents, dissecting their tendencies and the opponent’s offensive scheme.
Smith held Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green to one catch for 13 yards. Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, the NFL’s leading receiver, also only had one catch for 14 yards against Smith. Smith surrendered one 3-yard snag to Oakland’s Michael Crabtree. The Ravens corner held Miami’s Jarvis Landry without a catch in two targets, and gave up one 8-yard pass to Kenny Stills.
“Early in your career, a lot of the time you kind of take that stuff for granted,” Pees said. “[Players think], ‘My talent is going to get me where I need to get and I used it in college. I don’t really study it like that.’ I think that is where he has become better and better as all the guys do as they mature that way.”
Smith agreed, saying it’s just general experience and learning from watching others.
“The first year you go in and your kind of naive and you don’t know anything,” he said. “Then you kind of get woken up by some veteran quarterbacks and veteran receivers and routes.”
Smith is referencing a Week 15 game in San Diego during his rookie year when Philip Rivers attacked him, including one long touchdown. Weddle, who used to play for the Chargers, remembers that game.
“I’ve seen him over the years and he was just always inconsistent and dealt with injuries,” Weddle said. “To be a top-flight corner in this league, you’ve got to bring it every day, every game. Not only for a season but seasons. That’s how you separate yourself.”
Smith will have his hands full again this week. The Titans have big-play wideout Rishard Matthews, tight end Delanie Walker, veteran wide receiver Eric Decker and first-round rookie wideout Corey Davis, who many Ravens fans were smitten with.
Smith’s off to a very strong start, but has to remain on the field and continue his impressive production to maintain his reputation as one of the best. Though he doesn’t really seem to care too much about that reputation. “I always believed in my head that I’m one of the top players," Smith said. "If the polls say that I am one day, that would be dope too."