Ravens corner Jimmy Smith could play some safety this year
The Baltimore Ravens cornerback corps are the best and deepest in the league from top to bottom headlined by Pro Bowlers Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Earl Thomas. With a pair of All-Pros on the perimeter and return of nickel corner Tavon Young from a neck injury that knocked him out of commission last season, veteran corner Jimmy Smith could be embracing a new role in the defense this year.
“It’s a new role, a new phase of football for me in a sense. I’m excited to take that on,” Smith said via the team’s official website.
For years before the maturation of Humphrey and the arrival of Peters via trade midway through last season, the fate of the Ravens secondary relied almost solely on the health of the former first-round pick out of the University of Colorado in 2011.
When he was in the lineup and healthy, he was as dominant as any lockdown corner in the league but when he was out for any stretch of time small or short, the backend seemingly fell apart at the seams and was torched mercilessly by opposing quarterbacks. One can only imagine the outcomes of some of the biggest letdowns in recent franchise history where if they had had him in the lineup.
Maybe they wouldn’t have given up two 14 point leads to the Patriots in the divisional round of the 2014 playoffs because they were forced to start Anthony Levine and Rashaan Melvin at cornerback or maybe he could’ve been the difference in one of the seasons during the team’s three-year hiatus from the postseason where they came up just short in the final weeks of the season.
He’s only played a full 16 game slate once in his career and that came in the woeful 2015 season where the team finished with their worst record under head coach John Harbaugh at 5-11 and just every starter but him went down with season-ending injuries. But enough about what he has done or hasn’t done lately let’s focus on what he can do now and that could still be a vital role for this defense.
After Young was declared done for the season before it even began, the Ravens used a rotation of players to man the slot that included Humphrey and once Smith returned to the lineup after spraining his knee in the season opener Humphrey continued to predominantly play the nickel. But now that Young is back, Smith is open to taking a step back from full-time starter status and being more of a matchup coverman and even play some safety.
“We put Marlon at nickel quite a bit last year, so Marlon can go in there and matchup inside, and Jimmy can play outside,” Harbaugh said via the team’s official website. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if you saw those three corners on the field. We could put four corners on the field very easily.”
Many veterans that have started, competed, and played at a high level often look at the transition from corner to safety as slight. Some believe that it is a sign that their coaches believe that their skill set is deteriorating and that they’ve lost a step, but Smith believes that it could ultimately be what’s best for his career long-term and the unit overall.
“Initially, you’re like, ‘I’ve got to go prove I can still be a starter in this league.’ But I took a step back and realized this could be a blessing. I’m still going to get to play a ton, play for my team, but also not have as much wear and tear on my body and help me play this game I love for as long as I want.”
Last season Brandon Carr, the NFL’s defensive Ironman, kept his consecutive starts streak intact but took a more diverse role in defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale’s scheme after the arrival of Peters and the return of Smith from injury. He became a corner/safety hybrid that would help Thomas patrol the deep middle when Chuck Clark came down to play linebacker in sub-packages. The team rarely played their base defense as much as they did sub which meant that even though he wasn’t always lining up across from a receiver in the slot or out wide, he could still have an impact.
“Our defense is based on that premise, the idea that guys can play multiple positions,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not unusual for us to move guys around. You’ll see safeties playing linebacker, linebackers playing safety, defensive ends playing middle linebacker. From play-to-play, we really try to keep the offense from understanding who is where and (why).”
The Ravens brought the 31-year old back on a one-year deal worth up to $6 million with $3.5 million guaranteed this offseason to fortify their topflight unit and Harbaugh even said they might similarly deploy Smith in the way that they did Carr a season ago. He could be that hybrid defensive back role and then some in this diverse defense that features several versatile pieces.
At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, he has the size, length, and athletic ability to cover the new aged tight ends that have become essentially big-bodied receivers. They won’t look as physically daunting lined up across from him and he won’t be afraid to check them at the line of scrimmage and stick with them downfield.
“I didn’t take any reps, but I definitely started looking at safety a lot more last year, just messing around with it,” Smith said. “I feel like they could deploy me on some tight ends or something like that. I definitely think I’ll be in some type of new role.”
Whatever role that Harbaugh and company cook up for Smith should be interesting to see when the time comes and he’ll definitely be up for the challenge whatever it might be whether it is at either safety spots or his traditional outside corner spot to spell one of his teammates. No matter what he’ll be seeing the field and making an impact in some capacity.