Jimmy Smith showed up two weeks early for the Ravens’ offseason program.
He wanted to get a jump-start on the new workouts, plus he was just eager to actually participate this year. Smith spent the last two offseasons cooped up in the training room as he recovered from a significant Lisfranc foot injury, but now he’s finally healthy and expects to have a big 2017 season.
“It’s my first offseason in two years where I don’t have an injury, and can actually work out with the team and participate in OTAs,” Smith said Wednesday. “I’m really excited. I think it’s probably going to be one of my best years.”
Getting Smith healthy – and keeping him that way – is a big priority for the Ravens. The former first-round pick is the team’s best cornerback and a difference maker for the defense, but he’s dealt with a variety of injuries in his career.
A high ankle sprain kept him out of the final three games last year, and his absence has played a big part in crushing late-season losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots in two of the last three years. Without Smith on the field for last season’s Christmas Day matchup with Pittsburgh, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger marched his offense up and down the field for three fourth-quarter touchdowns to end Baltimore’s playoff hopes.
“It was just hard because I knew I could be out there and help,” Smith said. “I’m tired of just being hurt. I’m tired of not being able to compete and do my job.”
One of the ways he plans to avoid injury again is by staying in Baltimore for all his offseason training. In the past, Smith has worked out with a personal trainer, but he likes the workout program new Director of Performance Steve Saunders has put into place.
“I have another trainer who does very well. I came in here and [Saunders] kicked my butt a couple of times, so I just told my other trainer I’m going to be here a couple weeks and check it out,” Smith said. “[Now] I’m going to be here the whole offseason just because of how good of job [Saunders] does with us.”
The injuries have been the biggest knock on Smith in his six NFL seasons. He’s only played in 16 games twice in his career because he’s dealt with foot, ankle, back and groin injuries.
But he can be a lockdown cornerback when he’s healthy, and that’s why the Ravens rewarded him with a contract reportedly worth $41 million before the 2015 season.
Smith is well aware of all the questions and criticisms about whether he can stay healthy, and playing all 16 games is a priority for him.
“I can’t be mad. I’ve missed games,” he said. “I’ve missed a lot of games. It hurts to sit on the sidelines. It hurts to hear it. But that’s the truth. Motivation? That’s not my motivation. My motivation is to dominate and to be one of the best players in the league.”
Smith’s injuries are most notable because the defense changes drastically when he’s not on the field. Smith missed parts of six games last year, and the Ravens went 2-4 during that stretch. When Smith was healthy, the Ravens allowed 205.9 passing yards per game, compared to 277.5 yards when he was sidelined.
To address the issue of depth, the Ravens made significant offseason investments in the secondary by adding safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Brandon Carr.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m the key, but I’m definitely part of this defense that we need,” Smith said. “And bringing in corners like Brandon and a safety like Tony to help bolster our secondary, is a key to propelling us into the playoffs.”
Smith understands how important he is for the defense, and plans to spend the next few months in Baltimore training in the team’s voluntary workout program.
“He’s come in with an energy and focus that he wants to play all 16 games,” safety Eric Weddle said. “He knows how important he is to our defense and what he brings to it, and I’m excited. I think he’s going to have his best year yet.”