The Ravens drafted Za'Darius Smith with visions of him being the next Pernell McPhee, who departed for Chicago in free agency last offseason.
When Smith first took the field, it was striking how many similarities the two players shared. Once the season ended, their stats were similar too. Smith finished his rookie season with 5.5 sacks. McPhee logged six sacks as a rookie in 2011.
But as Smith's sophomore season approaches, Head Coach John Harbaugh said it's time to stop linking the two. It's a fair comparison, he said, but an old one.
"[Smith] is his own man. He is his own player," Harbaugh said. "He's a really good player."
Smith was thrown into the fire last year, especially after the injury to Terrell Suggs. He responded well, and got on a roll by season's end with 3.5 sacks in his final three games.
Now the Ravens see a more dynamic role for Smith that will allow him to play multiple positions and rush the passer from the outside and inside, as well as supplement in the run defense.
"Coach wants to put me in a lot of different situations," Smith said.
While Suggs is the Ravens' all-time sacks leader (106.5), he's also 33 years old and coming off a second Achilles tear. Baltimore could use Smith to help ease the burden on Suggs. The two could even be put on the field at the same time with one rushing from the inside and one on the edge.
"I know that is why I was brought here – to be a great pass rusher and set the edge," Smith said. "From Year One and Year Two, I think that will be a big improvement for me."
Smith said getting more reps is what has made him better. He got a late start in football, beginning to play the game late in high school. He then went through junior college at East Mississippi before landing at Kentucky.
Smith was still very much learning the game as a rookie last year. He didn't know how to read offenses, leaving him guessing more than his peers at whether a run or pass was coming. He had immediate success, in part, because he's such a physical freak at a chiseled 6-foot-4, 275 pounds.
"I was more hesitant about everything I did because I wasn't so sure," Smith said. "That was just me being a rookie. Now, coming into Year Two, I feel more comfortable about the whole playbook at each position."
Smith has gained a bounty of experience this summer with Suggs and Elvis Dumervil sidelined. He's been running with the first-team defense and getting just about every rep. That's enabled him to learn more from his mistakes, and he's turning the corner.
"I tell him all the time, because my expectations are so high, 'I'm going to be riding you on a regular basis.' And he loves it," Harbaugh said. "He wants to be coached and he just gets better every single day. We're excited about him. We're looking forward to a good year from him."
In the meeting room Monday, Harbaugh brought up a couple big plays the team had in practice. Smith was featured on back-to-back plays when he got after the quarterback as a pass rusher. Harbaugh called Smith out for kudos.
"That got me more hyped, like, 'OK, now I'm doing my job and filling that role,'" Smith said. "That was a good thing for coach to say to me to make me feel more confident in myself."