Can Jimmy Smith Be a Reliable Starting Cornerback for the Ravens This Year?
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Including the playoffs, Smith has appeared in 25 career games thus far but has only six starts to his name—four in 2011 and two in 2012 (subscription required). He missed the first half of his rookie year thanks to an ankle sprain and the second half of the 2012 regular season after undergoing sports hernia surgery. Now that Cary Williams has departed a free agent, the Ravens are hoping he'll prove reliable and healthy enough to compete for his vacant starting spot.
Smith played a total of 53.3 percent of the Ravens' total defensive snaps last year, with a per-game low of two snaps (Wild Card round, versus the Indianapolis Colts) and a high of 77 (Week 7, against the Houston Texans). He had a combined 34 tackles and allowed completions on 32 of the 50 passes (64 percent) thrown his direction for a total of 361 yards and 51 yards after the catch. Though he gave up no touchdowns, he successfully defensed just three passes and opposing passers had a quarterback rating of 85.5 percent when throwing his way.
In all, Smith's 2012 season ranked him next-to-last among the 113 cornerbacks evaluated by Pro Football Focus and resulted in Corey Graham, whom the Ravens picked up in free agency in 2012 primarily for his special teams skills, taking over the starting job from Week 10 on. Graham will again be Smith's biggest competition in training camp this year, fighting to take Williams' former starting spot alongside Lardarius Webb.
Smith seems to be making positive strides when it comes to his part of the battle, using boxing training as a way to drop 10 pounds and appearing more motivated to his coaches during the Ravens' offseason programs. However, Smith will need more than motivation to beat out Graham and finally live up to his draft billing. He needs to shake off any perception that he's a bust, prone to injuries and easily replaceable, especially in a year that will see a vastly different Ravens defense on the field than seasons prior.
Though Graham won out over Smith last year, that doesn't make him a favorite to reprise the role this season. What Graham has over Smith is simply less of a history of injury (the old adage of "availability is the best ability" certainly applies here) rather than better overall skill at the position.
Graham allowed completions on 51 of 89 passes thrown his way last season (57.3 percent), for a total of 631 yards and 253 yards after the catch. While Graham had four interceptions, he also gave up four touchdowns and opposing quarterbacks had a 75.6 rating when throwing his direction. He was a slight statistical upgrade over Smith, but again, Smith dealt with injuries that Graham did not and Graham also played significantly more snaps. The battle between the two this summer is one of the Ravens' biggest.
If Smith doesn't win the starting job, that doesn't mean his roster spot is in jeopardy this year. He'll still provide valuable depth, especially with Webb coming off of an ACL tear. He will probably see extended time in the nickel position, but it does put into question his long-term viability in Baltimore.
Granted, injuries have slowed Smith's progress, but the Ravens need him to become a starting-caliber player at some point soon. He's made some important plays for the Ravens over the past two seasons, but consistency is needed if he's going to be a fixture on the roster. How he looks this summer will have great influence on his status with the Ravens beyond 2013.
If healthy—no more back problems, no more ankle sprains—Smith could conceivably be a solid starting cornerback for the Ravens. Chances are, he'll beat out Graham this summer. But he'll have to do more than look good on the practice field—he'll also need to prove that he's reliable, that he won't disappear mid-season with another ailment and force the Ravens to shift personnel around again. The convincing will take more than just on-field performance.
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