When the Baltimore Ravens selected Jimmy Smith with the 27th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, it was clear that they wanted him to become one of the cornerbacks of the future. That future was temporarily delayed in 2011 when the lockout took away valuable practice time from Smith and all of the other rookies.
Smith's aspirations to work toward a starting job were temporarily set back by injuries. On his very first NFL play, the opening kickoff of the Ravens Week 1 game, Smith suffered an ankle injury. This caused him to miss much of the Ravens first five games as the coaches made sure he was healthy before they brought him back.
Smith settled for appearing in 12 games with three starts later in the year. He had a respectable rookie season with 20 tackles and three interceptions, including a critical one in the AFC Championship game. Most of his contributions came on passing situations in the Ravens nickel package.
A major reason Smith didn't see the field as much was because of the surprising play of another cornerback. This was Cary Williams, a seventh-round pick from 2008 who had exactly zero starts before the 2011 season. Yet Williams impressed coaches in training camp and then went on to start every game in the 2011 season.
For the most part, he played well too. Williams recorded 78 tackles and two forced fumbles while he also did a great job containing the receivers he lined up against.
However, nothing is guaranteed for Williams as the Ravens are holding a competition for starting cornerback. One spot is filled thanks to Lardarius Webb playing at a Pro Bowl level last year. That leaves Williams and Smith to battle it out for the next spot.
As a former practice squad player, Williams' performance last year was extremely impressive. However, the truth is he was not brought in to be a starter. Smith was brought in for that purpose and once he's ready, he will be the starter.
Since signing his tender, Williams has mostly been inactive at Ravens OTA's as he tries to recover from hip surgery. This gives Smith the opportunity to work in some reps and try to make his case for starting.
So far, Smith has worked hard to refine both his technique and body this offseason by being active in the team's offseason program. He has also dropped 15 pounds from his 2011 weight and is working hard to improve his speed.
Given the expectations surrounding the players, this is likely Smith's job to lose. Williams shouldn't feel too discouraged though as the Ravens' third corner will certainly get lots of playing time in passing situations.
With Webb, Smith and Williams looking to start and talented backups like Corey Graham and Danny Gorrer on the Ravens roster, they have to feel good about their pass defense.
After several years where it was viewed as the Ravens biggest liability, it is now a strength. The competition between Smith and Williams should only help to improve the pass defense and make this strength even stronger.