Free agency has been in full swing for more than two weeks now. For GM Eric DeCosta and the Ravens, it’s been an especially active period of trades, signings and re-signings alike.
The acquisitions of Calais Campbell and Derrick Wolfe, along with Hayden Hurst being traded and Matthew Judon getting the franchise tag, have garnered the majority of the headlines - and rightfully so given their magnitude. However, there’s one transaction that slipped through the cracks a bit but could prove to have the most profound impact on Baltimore’s success next season.
That is the re-signing of CB Jimmy Smith to a one-year contract.
After franchise tagging Judon, trading for and signing Calais Campbell to a new contract and tentatively agreeing to a “deal” with Michael Brockers (yikes), Baltimore’s once-fruitful cap space began to dwindle by the day. And with it, so too did the prospects of Jimmy Smith returning to the Ravens next season.
Given the market for cornerbacks in today’s NFL, it was reasonable to presume some team would be willing to throw Smith an offer that he couldn’t refuse. Heck, the Bills signed Josh Norman for a contract worth $8 million. But Smith, who had expressed a desire to return to Baltimore long before the start of free agency, remained true to his word.
When the Ravens suddenly traded DE Chris Wormley to the Steelers for only a draft pick in return, it was clear that DeCosta was trying to create some financial wiggle room. It worked in Baltimore’s favor, as the Ravens were able to re-sign Smith to a one-year contract worth up to $6 million in 2020.
Short-term deal? Check.
Fiscally responsible? Check.
Smith’s tenure with the organization, which dates back to 2011, has been a bit up-and-down to say the least. Nobody has ever questioned his talent and on-field ability but the issue lies in his actual ability to stay on the field, which has been well-documented. Only once in his career (2015) has Smith suited up for 16 games and over the past two seasons, he’s played in only 21 combined games.
However, we’re past the point of waiting on injuries and lack of availability to stop holding Smith back from becoming one of the league’s premier cornerbacks. This was the case for several years but that window has closed.
However, with where Smith is at in his career and where the Ravens are in terms of their championship window, the two sides align perfectly.
Smith’s lengthy injury history and age - he’ll turn 32 in July - would suggest that that he’s closer to the end of his career than his prime. This may be true to an extent, but Smith has plenty left in the tank and demonstrated this last season.
In nine games and five starts, Smith allowed a catch rate of only 51.1% and a passer rating of 65.4. He was given a solid PFF grade of 65.6, recorded six passes defended and caught an interception, too.
Many point to the acquisitions of Marcus Peters, Josh Bynes and Jihad Ward, among others, as the reason for the team’s defensive turnaround around the midseason point of 2019. While this is certainly accurate, it’d be unfair to overlook the fact that Smith returned to the lineup just around the same time and had a significant impact.
Smith’s first game back from a Week 1 injury was in Week 9 against the Patriots. He played 81% of defensive snaps in that game, 81% in Week 10 against the Bengals and remained a mainstay in the team’s crowded secondary for the remainder of the season.
Can you say, “back like he never left?”
Smith’s return gave the Ravens a three-headed monster at cornerback. Between him, Peters and Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore instantly had a trio of corners capable of locking opposing receivers down in 1-on-1 situations. It permitted DC “Wink” Martindale to move Brandon Carr into more of a single-high safety role and move other players around the field, too. For example, Humphrey began to man the slot and Earl Thomas III played more near the line of scrimmage.
This type of flexibility and creativeness is key to the team’s defensive success. Why is Martindale able to blitz more than any other defensive coordinator in the NFL? Because he has a tremendous secondary and can get away with playing man coverage. Take Smith out of the equation and the puzzle begins to fall apart.
Without Smith, the Ravens would be left with “only” Humphrey and Peters as the two sure bets at the cornerback position. The hope is that Tavon Young is healthy for the 2020 season and is back to playing high-level football at the nickel corner spot, but it’d be unwise to just presume this is going to manifest entirely.
Even if Young is healthy and back to his old ways, without Smith the Ravens would have a glaring question mark at the No. 4 cornerback spot. It’s all but set in stone that Brandon Carr won’t be back. Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall have upside for sure but have yet to accomplish anything, and the former did not exactly inspire confidence with extended playing time in 2019.
Having Smith back in the fold is huge. Not just for his skill set and on-field ability, but because of his experience and leadership.
The aforementioned Carr had played more snaps than any other defensive back on the roster and brought professionalism and guidance to the locker room. Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters are no longer “youngsters” so to speak but don’t have the same experience in big games as say, Earl Thomas.
Thomas has a Super Bowl to his name and has suited up in more than a few postseason contests. The caveat, though, is that he hasn’t done so with the Ravens. Who has, though? Jimmy Smith, who was also a key contributor on a Super Bowl roster back in 2012.
If everything goes according to plan, that could once again be the case next season.