Smith really had no choice in the matter after the Ravens traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the offseason and tight end Dennis Pitta seriously injured his hip in training camp. Still, five games into the season, Smith has not only solidified himself as the best receiver on the Ravens, but as one of the top targets in the entire league. He ranks in the top three in the NFL in receiving yards (556), average yards per catch (20.6), receptions of 25 or more yards (seven) and yards after the catch (223).
The turnaround from a deep threat to an all-round one can be traced back to consistency, confidence and, to put it bluntly, catching the ball.
"I think toward the last quarter of the season last year, last half of the season -- he’s become a guy that you can throw the ball to, and you know he’s going to come down with the ball," Flacco said. "You look at before that, he had the ability to make all kinds of plays, and he would make a lot of plays, but he’d put the ball on the ground here and there. Sometime last year, he became that guy that caught really everything you threw to him, and I think he’s becoming more and more of that guy."
Ever since he was drafted in the second round in 2011, Smith had the speed that struck fear in every cornerback and the hands that frustrated Flacco and the coaching staff. He pressed too much as a rookie and dropped so many passes his first summer with the team that the Ravens felt the need to trade for Lee Evans.
Smith finished his first season with eight drops, and his trouble holding onto the ball continued into the middle of the 2012 season, when he apparently hit his breaking point with two drops each at Houston and at Cleveland. Since then, he has three drops in his past 17 regular-season games. Smith has gone seven straight regular-season games without letting a pass go through his hands.
"The biggest thing is don’t panic," Smith said. "Don’t doubt yourself. It’s on me when the ball is thrown to just make the play, whether it’s short or long.”
Of all the receivers who've been targeted more than 40 times, Smith is the only one who hasn't dropped a pass this season. He's caught passes that were behind him. He has made sliding grabs. He even had a one-handed catch in the season opener in Denver.
It has built a trust with Flacco that was evident in last Sunday's 26-23 win at Miami. With the game tied in the fourth quarter, Flacco rolled to his right and threw a slightly off-target throw downfield to his favorite receiver. Smith elevated, despite having cornerback Brent Grimes on his back, and pulled in the pass that was behind him for a 14-yard gain.
That clutch catch moved the Ravens in range for Justin Tuckers' game-winning, 44-yard field goal. It was a pass that was similar to the ones Flacco used to throw to Boldin, a flashback to the times when Flacco tossed the ball in a tight window and believed Boldin was going to come down with the ball.
"He’s got those sure hands now," Flacco said of Smith. "It’s just a matter of being comfortable with the atmosphere of everything and who he is, and not worrying about the little things and just being able to go out there and play football. And now he’s able to catch those things like it is just second nature.”
The relationship between Smith and Flacco has grown with the numbers. Two weeks ago in Buffalo, cameras on the sideline caught Smith telling Flacco to lead him more downfield with the pass. A week later in Miami, Flacco was making fun of Smith for stopping on a crossing route, saying the third-year receiver sometimes goes into "la la land."
"It's like a brother type of relationship where you argue, and we mess around about who's right or who's wrong, but at the end of the day we get on the same page," Smith said. "That's a great relationship to have because nothing is ever taken personal. It's all constructive. Whether I'm right or wrong, I know he wants what's best for our unit."
If you want to rile up Smith, ask him how many times he has been questioned about becoming the team's No. 1 wide receiver. "About a million times too many," Smith said.
Some wondered if he was capable of running another route except the deep one straight down the field. What people forget is he ran shallow crossing routes last season in San Diego and made all of his catches in the AFC Championship Game by going over the middle.
The real challenge for Smith is getting open when the entire secondary is focused on stopping him. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said teams are playing "choke" coverage on Smith, meaning there is one defender jamming him at the line and a safety playing over the top on his side.
"He’s done a good job handling all of those things," Harbaugh said. "He gets off the line of scrimmage against press better than people think. They think they can keep him on the line of scrimmage, but he does a better job releasing than people expect.”
It was valid to wonder if Smith was going to be able to fill Boldin's void. Smith delivered some big games, but he wasn't the type of receiver you counted on every week. In his first two seasons, 45 percent of his receiving yards came in six games.
This season, Smith became the NFL's most reliable receiver when the Ravens have desperately needed that level of productivity. With inexperience at wide receiver and Ray Rice off to a slow start, Smith is the only player in the league to record at least 85 yards receiving in every game this season.
"He’s the leader that we needed on offense when you lose a guy like Anquan Boldin," tight end Ed Dickson said. "Just to see the plays that he’s made, [those] huge catches. It wasn’t always perfect, but he found a way to come down with those catches and come through in the clutch for us."