There’s no question who the heart, soul, and unquestioned leader of the Baltimore Ravens’ defense is this year. All-Pro veteran inside linebacker Roquan Smith isn’t just the tone-setter with his words but backs it up with his actions every time he steps on the field and his teammates rally behind him.
“He’s like a Ray Lewis for us,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said on Wednesday.
Almost every former first-round off-ball linebacker for nearly the last three decades has been compared to the Ravens’ franchise legend Ray at one point or another. However, it’s one thing to be mentioned in the same breath as the first ballot Hall of Fame and a whole different challenge to actually live up to the lofty comparison.
Smith was compared to Lewis when first coming into the league out of Georgia as a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears in 2018. Since joining the Ravens via trade at the midseason deadline last year, he has absolutely embodied the essence of what Lewis meant to the teams he played on during his illustrious 17-year career.
“He’s such a special player. You don’t see guys like that many times,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “The way he sees the game – he’s very smart, he studies a lot of film. He looks at a formation, and he knows exactly what’s coming. You talk about a [former Carolina Panthers All-Pro linebacker] Luke Kuechly-type of deal – guys that are super vocal, able to lead. He has that fire that I haven’t seen from very many people. He has that elite focus. He’s able to do it at such a high level. He’s been a blessing for this team – for this defense – and a catalyst for what we can be.”
Three-time Pro Bowl edge defender Jadeveon Clowney came into the league four years prior to Smith. He played with a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, five-time All-Pro, and three-time Defensive Player of the Year in J.J. Watt during the prime of his career with Houston Texans. Following the Ravens’ dominant Week 4 win over the Cleveland Browns, Clowney told reporters that he has “not played with anyone like Roquan”, especially at the linebacker position. Clowney lined up alongside six-time All-Pro Bobby Wagner during his one-year stint with the Seattle Seahawks in 2019.
“In 10 years, no linebacker I’ve ever played with [has been] better than him,” Clowney said. “They don’t have the attitude or intensity they play with like Roquan Smith since I’ve played in the League. He’ll be a big reason why our defense goes the way it goes. He’s bringing the best out of a lot of guys around him. When you have a leader like that that’s going to put it all out there not just on Sundays, but on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, the whole week, and you come to the game, and it just rolls over. It rubs off on people. It’s contagious. We just stick together, and ‘Go Ro.’”
Head coach John Harbaugh praised Smith for “relentless chasing” attention to detail when it comes to honing his craft with an enthusiastic demeanor and confidence. He also agrees with the sentiment that Andrews shared about him being a “catalyst” for the team as a whole, not just on the defensive side of the ball.
Coach Harbaugh on Roquan being a "catalyst": pic.twitter.com/ABsGG6UdAA— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) October 4, 2023
“A great leader brings it to the culture,” Harbaugh said. “The culture is a lot of things, and one of the things ... It becomes a mix for all the parts, all the pieces in there, and sometimes there can be a catalyst. And I think he was a little bit of a catalyst [last year] for us that way, just the way he operates, and that’s good – that’s what leadership is.”
Smith sat down with Lewis for a film breakdown session of his tape from last year after he joined the Ravens in a video segment by NFL Films. The two shared their insights about what he does well and where he can still improve and take his game to even greater heights.
“I have a great deal of respect for Ray and obviously the stellar career, Hall of Fame career, he had,” Smith recently said. “But I’m myself at the end of the day. I just go out and focus on being the best version of myself and I feel like if I do that to the best of my ability, I’ll be in good standing.”
While Smith still has a ways to go to rack up as many accolades as Lewis, he has already followed in his footsteps by establishing himself as arguably the best inside linebacker of his generation. With the way he is headlining the 2023 Ravens’ defense to a dominant start, he’s in the conversation to be named Defensive Player of the Year — a prestigious honor that Lewis earned twice in his career.
More importantly, he’s helped the Ravens emerge as a prime contender to possibly make it to the Super Bowl thanks to a championship-caliber defense that he’s the face of.