Smith also graded out as the best cornerback on the team per ProFootballFocus metrics, and finally began to live up to the lofty expectations many fans set when he was selected in the first round of the NFL draft in 2011. Jimmy had spent much of his first two seasons in the league dealing with the premature “bust” label.
Smith’s breakout actually started in the 2012 playoff run. As we’ll all always remember, he was a key part of the Ravens’ last-gasp goal line stand in Super Bowl XLVII, as he broke up a pass on third down and then disrupted the route of receiver Michael Crabtree on fourth down, to help secure the victory.
“I’ll never forget those two plays ever,” Smith said when asked about the end of the Super Bowl. “If I didn’t make that play, who knows what would be happening [in 2013]?”
Of course, some analysts and fans – and Jim Harbaugh – felt Smith interfered with Crabtree, and that a flag should have been thrown.
Fortunately for Smith and Ravens fans though, the record books will forever read “incomplete.”
Smith then had what he has called his best offseason as a pro heading into 2013. He came to training camp feeling like a man on a mission, ready to prove he did not just get lucky in the Super Bowl, and that he actually was worthy of being the front line starting cornerback he was selected to be.
Head coach John Harbaugh said last summer that he felt like Smith was developing on schedule and getting better each day. It was also the first time in his pro career that Smith had finished a preseason without being injured.
Smith also tweaked his game plan, as he began to get more physical with receivers off the line, jamming them and trying to overpower them. It’s a similar approach to what has worked so well for the cornerbacks on the number 1 defense of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. When Smith started using his 6’2” size and 77-inch wingspan, his confidence began to grow, and his game began to elevate.
He also began to emerge as a leader on the team, and it helped shake off the view some held that sometimes it looked like he did not care about what he was doing on the field. This was simply a misunderstanding by fans, as Smith says this approach is by design to help him keep his composure.
In Week 10, a botched tip by safety James Ihedigbo on a Hail Marry pass in the end zone on the final play of regulation led to a game-tying touchdown for Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver AJ Green. Smith was emotional and fired up after the play and cameras caught him yelling at Ihedigbo on the sideline. Ihedigbo then consequently played well on the Ravens next defensive stand, helping stop the Bengals on a fourth down attempt in overtime. Leadership was something some Ravens fans were concerned about after Ray Lewis and Ed Reed left following the 2012 season, but Smith proved he can help lead the locker room on that day.
Smith got better as the season went on in 2013, often matching up with most opponents’ number one receivers on the outside. At one stretch in the middle of the season Smith went through a nine-week period where he allowed only 22 catches and 257 yards. Smith helped hold top receivers like Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Josh Gordon, and Calvin Johnson in check, and this did not go unnoticed.
Before the Lions hosted the Ravens last December Calvin Johnson said of Smith, “He is growing. He is aware of the game. He is coming up.”
With Smith scheduled to become a free agent after next season, the Ravens will have to ask themselves how valuable Smith is to the defense. He can have his “Fifth-year option” activated by May 3rd of 2014, which would be before the team could see him in any game action next season. At that point Smith would make a salary around $6.5 million for an additional season, acting as sort of a “mini-Transition tag” in the words of Russell Street Report’s Brian McFarland. The small catch is that the option allows for smith to be released before 2015 based upon poor play or to save cap space, unless he is injured. If Smith is on the roster on the first day of the season in the fifth year, the salary becomes guaranteed.
Smith showed in 2013 that he is worth that risk, and if his 2014 is similar to his 2013, or better, he will likely be a target for the team to sign to a long-term deal.