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Is Jimmy Smith the NFL's Best-Kept Secret at Cornerback?

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistJuly 8, 2015

USA Today

Jimmy Smith has always been a talented football player.

After playing college football at Colorado, Smith became a first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens during the 2011 NFL draft. He was selected 27th overall but fell further than his talent suggested he should have because of concerns about his maturity off the field.

Selecting Smith was a risk that Ozzie Newsome was willing to take, but not one that would reap immediate rewards. In truth, over the first two years of Smith's career, he was closer to being a bust than a star.

It's not unusual for a cornerback to adapt slowly to the professional game from the college level. Smith struggled with his performances on the field, but those struggles were compounded by injuries that cost him games. Over his first two years in the league, he missed nine regular-season games.

To really put that in context, he started just five games over that stretch.

As a 25-year-old in 2013, Smith enjoyed a breakout season. He played 16 games for the first time in his career while showing greater control of his athleticism than in previous years. Using his length, strength and speed, Smith was able to rely on his ball skills to notch 15 pass deflections and two interceptions.

Smith entered 2014 with much greater expectations than ever before because of his success in 2013. Unfortunately for the young cornerback, his health would once again cost him on the field. However, his play still earned resulted in a contract extension after the season.

Newsome has built up his reputation enough that he can comfortably take calculated risks on players such as Smith, but measuring how great of a risk it is requires looking more closely at his play in 2014.

Explaining the Process

Qualifying Plays

Plays that count:

  • Every snap that has the cornerback in man coverage no matter where the ball is thrown.
  • The above includes sacks, quarterback scrambles and plays where the defensive back has safety help.
  • Every snap in zone coverage where a one-on-one situation is naturally created. For example, a sideline route from a wide receiver who lined up directly across from the cornerback when that cornerback is covering the deep third in Cover 3.

Plays that don’t count:

  • Screen plays. Even if the receiver isn't part of the screen, these plays do not count.
  • Plays where either the receiver or cornerback doesn't follow through his whole assignment.
  • Zone plays that don't create one-on-one situations. Any ambiguity in this area will disqualify a play.
  • Any prevent coverage situations.
  • Receptions in the flat without a route run.
  • Running plays, including designed quarterback runs.

Failed Coverages

The ball does not have to be thrown in the defensive back’s direction for the coverage to fail. This is not an analysis of how many completions the cornerback allowed (that can be found elsewhere)this is an analysis of how good his coverage is on any given play.

Failed coverages can come at any point of the route, but it is subjective to where the players are on the field in relation to the quarterback. Typically, defensive backs must be within arm's reach for underneath/intermediate routes. On deeper passes, there is greater leeway given to the defender.

Failed coverages can be subjective. They must be determined by the situation considering the length of the play and other such variables.

In Position

This is the opposite of a failed coverage. In order to be "in position," a defensive back has to be in a position to prevent a relatively well-thrown pass to his assignment.

Individual Matchups

No.PlayerSuccessful Snaps/Total SnapsPercentage
1Julio Jones8/8100%
2Hakeem Nicks8/8100%
3TY Hilton7/888%
4Kelvin Benjamin13/1587%
5Vincent Jackson8/1080%
6Taylor Gabriel3/475%
7Antonio Brown3/475%
8Reggie Wayne7/1070%
9Mike Evans3/650%
10Louis Murphy2/633%
Analytical Analysis through NFL.com

We only included receivers with at least four qualifying snaps against Smith on this chart. The sample is obviously limited because he only played seven games and a couple of snaps in an eighth last year.

Weekly Breakdown

Smith's performances during the 2014 season were inconsistent. He fluctuated from dominant to disappointing too often. While it's not reflected in his individual matchup chart, Smith struggled with shorter, quicker receivers who ran lateral routes than with long, fast receivers who ran vertical routes.

Against the Cleveland Browns, he was beaten four times by Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel on these types of routes. When he played against the Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, receivers primarily got free when they worked aggressively through horizontal routes and double-moves.

The other side of Smith's inconsistency saw him showcase an unnatural level of comfort against more physically dominating receivers such as Julio Jones and Kelvin Benjamin.

OpponentQualifying SnapsIn PositionFailed Coverages
Cincinnati Bengals651
Pittsburgh Steelers431
Cleveland Browns734
Carolina Panthers15132
Indianapolis Colts26224
Tampa Bay Buccaneers241410
Atlanta Falcons13130
Total957322
Analytical Analysis through NFL.com

Although Smith played in eight games, he was injured so early in the eighth that he never registered a qualifying snap. As such, the above chart only reflects the first seven games of the season. His success rate for the season was 76.8 percent.

That is an impressive achievement.

That number puts him right beside another outstanding young cornerback in Desmond Trufant (76.6 percent) and just behind another in Stephon Gilmore (80.6 percent). Each player aligned himself with some of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, Richard Sherman (78.9 percent) and Darrelle Revis (72.5 percent).

It's important to note a couple of things here.

Smith played half a season, while the other cornerbacks played at least 14 games apiece. Furthermore, and more significantly, the raw numbers don't tell us enough about each player's role within his defense or the kind of routes/receivers he faced. As such, straight comparisons don't work based solely on numbers.

The Tape

Smith is listed at 6'2" and 206 pounds. He has the length and strength to aggressively press receivers at the line of scrimmage, using his feet to create balance and his hands to concentrate his power effectively. He could still improve in this area, but he has developed to the point that he can be effective often.

Earlier in his career, Smith would attempt to be aggressive with receivers and overstep or mistime his movement to the point that he made it easy for receivers to release past him.

Unsurprisingly, he was a dramatically better press cornerback than off cornerback in 2014. Sixty-two of his 95 qualifying snaps saw him line up within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Exactly half of his failed coverages came on those snaps, which means his success rate in press was much greater than in off.

PressOff
Qualifying Snaps6233
Success Rate82.3%66.6%
Analytical Analysis through NFL.com

Being able to redirect smaller receivers by disrupting their release into their routes is valuable, but Smith stands out more with his ability to prevent big plays to big-play receivers from a press position. This particularly stood out in matchups with Benjamin, Jones and Vincent Jackson.

On this play against Benjamin, Smith doesn't play perfect coverage, but his physical talent allows him to still be disruptive:

Credit: NFL.com

Just before the ball is snapped, the Ravens rotate out of a Cover 2 look to blitz the safety on Smith's side of the field. This leaves him alone in space, with the deep sideline to protect as Cam Newton looks in his direction. Rotating the safeties likely played a part in how cautious Smith was at the line of scrimmage.

Even though he lines up in press, he doesn't aggressively engage the receiver when the ball is snapped:

Credit: NFL.com

Benjamin isn't a precision route-runner or a technical receiver based on any measure. His release is simple here. He simply attempts to outrun Smith to the sideline before turning upfield. As such, Smith can run alongside of him before attempting to get on top of the route.

Smith can comfortably do this:

Credit: NFL.com

Initially in the route, he plays perfect coverage. He establishes his positioning on the inside shoulder of Benjamin, just above him on his route down the sideline. This puts Smith in the perfect position to play a back-shoulder throw when he turns around to locate the ball.

Newton doesn't throw the back-shoulder throw though, so they must continue down the sideline.

Smith runs with Benjamin and attempts to use his strength to stay on top of him while keeping his eyes on the quarterback. With his size, Benjamin is eventually able to run through the contact, creating slight separation in behind the cornerback:

Credit: NFL.com

Even though Benjamin got behind Smith, the cornerback managed to recover with his acceleration and length. He didn't touch the football, but his size was able to knock Benjamin further toward the line of scrimmage, which made the difference on a throw that was ruled out of bounds by the edge of one foot.

Getting beaten in coverage is inevitable, but having the ability to recover positioning is a major positive for a cornerback like Smith who wants to play aggressive coverage.

Aggressiveness is typically associated with press cornerbacks rather than zone cornerbacks. It's true that those players need to carry a more aggressive streak against contact, but successful coverage is built off a balance between aggression and caution, regardless of assignment.

Smith showed off his ability to balance between both on this play against Jackson:

Credit: NFL.com

Jackson isn't a great route-runner, but he definitely carries more subtlety and precision than Benjamin. He begins this route by angling toward the sideline before stopping both feet to turn back inside on what looks like the initial stages of a slant route.

Smith once more doesn't engage Jackson at the snap, but he does react to his initial movement to establish himself to the outside:

Credit: NFL.com

Smith reacted adequately to the threat of the slant before flipping his hips with impressive speed to get back on top of Jackson's route down the sideline. As the final third of the above image shows, Jackson is pegged behind Smith in his route.

This is perfect coverage because he has his eyes back to locate the ball that is already in the air. From this position, most receivers are covered, but Jackson is a great jump-ball receiver.

Credit: NFL.com

Mike Glennon overthrew the pass, but if he hadn't, it would likely have been intercepted. Smith timed his jump perfectly and was extending his hands into the air before he recognized the flight of the ball. Jackson was blanketed. He would have needed an unprecedented adjustment to get to this pass first.

These are the kinds of situations where the Ravens want to keep Smith.

On this play he showed off the kind of fluidity and coverage skill that can make him a shutdown cornerback against vertical routes. It's when he faces less linear receivers on more elaborate routes that he becomes more easily exposed.

Playing in the AFC North means that it will be difficult for the Ravens to keep Smith away from receivers who can attack the weaker areas of his skill set. Andrew Hawkins, Antonio Brown and Marvin Jones should all be difficult matchups for him.

The Ravens will hope that Lardarius Webb can return to better form and sustain full health moving forward so they can use him and Smith more as specific-matchup pieces.

RouteNumber of RoutesSuccess Rate
Post1100%
Sideline2391%
Curl1990%
Crossing888%
Comeback683%
Slant580%
Seam367%
Out1258%
In1553%
Double Move333%
Analytical Analysis through NFL.com

Smith's success against routes last season doesn't give us a great picture of his skill set because of how limited the sample is. The limited data still backs up the idea that he is a better vertical, press-man defender than a cornerback who can sit back and control underneath and intermediate routes.

Cornerbacks are at a premium in today's NFL, so if you can find someone who excels at just one thing, then he can still carry value.

That is a worst-case scenario with Smith if you're looking at reasonable expectations. He isn't Brandon Browner. He's not so physically built that he possesses a narrow skill set that can only work under ideal situations.

He's simply better suited to certain assignments and opponents than others.

Conclusion

If Smith can play 16 full games next season, we should expect to hear his name mentioned alongside players such as Chris Harris and Vontae Davis.

He may not be as talented as Sherman or Revis, but he is a talented player who is entering his prime with the skill set to expand. If the Ravens are contending in the playoffs next year, Smith should be a key piece of a defense that lacks high-quality pieces in the secondary and lost Haloti Ngata to the Detroit Lions.

Saying Smith has been overlooked or underrated to this point in his career would be unfair. He hasn't stayed on the field long enough as an effective player to earn either mantle. Yet that doesn't mean he can't be the best-kept secret at the position across the league. 

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