As the NFL season approaches, there are plenty of questions because of the lack of training camp practices and preseason games, not to mention the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. But the Ravens have already answered one about their own team.
Yes, veteran Jimmy Smith is talented and versatile enough to play any position in the defensive backfield and could be a major advantage when it comes to one-on-one matchups. He could play outside as a cornerback or inside as a nickel back. During training camp, he also played safety.
His versatility has become a luxury.
“My expectation is just to be an impact player — to get my hands on the ball and be around the ball a lot more,” Smith said, “and just to go in when my number is called, just to go in and make a play, because obviously I’m going in on situational downs and all that. It’s just to make sure that I can make that play.”
Smith has always been smart, savvy and outspoken, and at age 32, the wisdom is starting to show. At the end of last season, opposing teams attacked him because he had lost a step and was more vulnerable than Pro Bowl cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey.
Some of the great players in Ravens history, such as tight end Shannon Sharpe, linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Rod Woodson, were able to prolong their Hall of Fame careers by changing their diets and working even harder during the offseason.
Smith developed his own regime.
“Just with the pandemic, I got lucky enough to have my trainer living with me, so I got to work out every day,” Smith said. “We worked on little things, but the main thing was just keeping my weight down and being able to be mobile. Because once you hit that over 30 and 32 age range, everybody wants to talk about how old you are all of a sudden.
“I got a text from [coach John] Harbaugh, probably like midway through the offseason, and he was just like, ‘Just make sure you come back in the best shape of your life,’ and my personal trainer actually took that as a personal challenge and kicked my butt this offseason.”
You can see the difference mentally as well as physically. At 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds, Smith is muscular, yet lean and those long arms and torso create the prototypical cornerback body. In past training camps, he would take plays off and at times showed little interest during practice.
Not this year.
Maybe that’s because if he doesn’t perform well, young players such as Anthony Averett or Tavon Young might take away his playing time.
“To be honest, in the very, very beginning, it was very different,” Smith said of learning the positions. “You’re not used to standing on the sideline, or just not in every single play. But, at the same time, I had to realize I’m in the twilight years of my career. The role that I’m playing, actually, I feel like it’s an important role. I can make impact in the game, and I feel like that’s my main thing. I want to be able to help the team, and I feel like the role that I’m playing right now allows me to help the team.”
Being a situational player has its advantages. The Ravens will win a lot of matchups with Smith lined up against No. 3 and No. 4 receivers either inside or outside. Smith still has enough speed to cover a lot of ground on the back end as a safety, and he has been one of the team’s top tacklers during his 10 years with the team.
But the safety position presents an entirely different look. The Ravens like their fit with Smith because he is one of several interchangeable players on defense. The Ravens also want this move to work out because Smith has become a favorite of Harbaugh and former Ravens general manager turned consultant/advisor Ozzie Newsome.
Smith was the team’s first-round draft pick in 2011, the 27th player chosen overall. He has 14 career interceptions and has knocked down 70 passes. He’ll go down as one of the top cornerbacks in team history even though his career has been hampered by foot and ankle injuries that forced him onto the injured reserve list in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
“I am getting comfortable in the role that I am in now. It’s pretty fun to be honest,” Smith said. “I’ve never played so many different positions before. It’s not really that much of a learning curve. It is something new, but I’m enjoying it.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Jonas Shaffer contributed to this article.