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NFL Draft

Move To Safety Could Extend Jimmy Smith’s Career

  • The Draft Network
  • July 6, 2020
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It happens to all of us. There’s no shame in it. It’s totally natural. But eventually, we all have to face it.

Getting old.

The term “old” in this article is a somewhat humorous choice of word. In reality, most would consider someone in their 60s or 70s as old. But in the world of pro football, if you’re over the age of 30, you’re probably getting the “old” label.

Different positions age differently. For example, good quarterbacks can typically play well into their 30s. But positions like running back, for example, playing significant snaps into their 30s is considered highly impressive.

The rule of thumb is usually the more speed your position demands on a snap-to-snap basis, the harder it is to maintain top play into your 30s. If you do happen to play one of those positions, to keep your career going you usually have to evolve. You have to adapt to the game in other ways outside of just athletic gifts. You have to be able to see things before they happen; staying a step ahead mentally since staying a step ahead physically gets tougher by the year.

Cornerback is certainly one of those positions that demand speed at all times, so when you see a cornerback playing well into their 30s, you have to tip your cap. One way a cornerback can extend the life of their career as a coverage player is with a position change. According to Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, that seems to be the track Ravens long-time cornerback Jimmy Smith is on. 

"With Jimmy, his role will probably be to roll in there and play some safety," Harbaugh said. "We put Marlon at nickel quite a bit last year, so Marlon can go in there and matchup inside, and Jimmy can play outside. I wouldn't be surprised at all if you saw those three corners on the field. We could put four corners on the field very easily."

Smith was drafted No. 27 overall in 2011. He’s been on the Ravens ever since through the course of a few contracts. On his rookie deal from 2011-2015, Smith made $7.4 million over four years. Then, on his second contract from 2015-2019, Smith made $41.4 million. Now in 2020, about to be 32 years old, he’s playing on a one-year, $3.5 million deal.

The reason for the smaller payout, both in contract length and total cash payout, is because Smith’s spot isn’t what it used to be. Smith primarily played right cornerback for the Ravens for the majority of his career. However, with Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters now starting on the outside, and with Travon Young starting in the nickel, Smith won’t be seeing the same kind of snaps he was in his 20s.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a use or a plan for him. Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said the safety transition for Smith won’t be out of nowhere. 

“It’s a wait and see thing. . . . Jimmy’s already done what Brandon Carr did last year,” Martindale said. “We’ve put him against good tight ends to cover them in special situations.”

Smith said he wanted to remain with the Ravens, even knowing that his long-time spot could be compromised.

"Initially, you're like, 'I've got to go prove I can still be a starter in this league’”, Smith said. “But I took a step back and realized this could be a blessing. I'm still going to get to play a ton, play for my team, but also not have as much wear and tear on my body and help me play this game I love for as long as I want."

It’s often the players that get ahead of their aging that extend their careers, allowing themselves the luxury of deciding when they step away rather than the game retiring them. For a player who has only played in a full 16 games just twice in his nine-year career, and the most recent time being in 2015, Smith is at a crossroads. According to Smith, he didn’t play any reps at safety last season, but his coverage assignments over the years have given him some pseudo experience for the position. 

"I didn't take any reps, but I definitely started looking at safety a lot more last year, just messing around with it," Smith said. "I feel like they could deploy me on some tight ends or something like that. I definitely think I'll be in some type of new role."

As I was catching up some of Smith’s top plays over the years, the ones that really caught my eye were the ones where he was able to read and react to the quarterback’s eyes in off zone coverage. That read and react principle is the main component of playing coverage safety. 

As Martindale said, Smith has been asked to cover tight ends, and he’ll likely continue to do so as a hybrid safety. But we already know Smith is comfortable in man coverage roles where he’s getting physical with bigger receivers.

With Earl Thomas still on the team, Smith likely won’t be playing the single-high role for Baltimore. But as that hybrid rotational safety and fourth cornerback on the depth chart, Smith should see plenty of action in 2020. He might even be in a better position to succeed, given his current skill set, as a player who can function in space, read and react.

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