When folks in Denver last saw Smith, he was busy breaking hearts and reeling in two touchdown passes -- 59 and 32 yards -- in what eventually became a double-overtime playoff loss for the Broncos.
Smith beat a busted coverage for the first touchdown -- cornerback Champ Bailey has said "that's a play I should make," but the safety help never came -- and he outjumped Bailey for the other. Bailey is still a rather large question mark for Thursday’s opener with a left foot injury.
Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, has consistently said over the past two weeks that he wants to play Thursday night and continues to hope he can make that happen. However, he’s 35 years old. If it’s close, plenty of folks inside the Broncos complex think the best decision would be to make sure he can go for the long haul this season rather than play him too quickly in the opener and then create a nagging foot problem for the remainder of the year.
So, the duties most likely will fall to others. Given his skill set, Rodgers-Cromartie makes the most sense because of his reach and athleticism, but it would take some adjustment on the Broncos’ part. They have played Rodgers-Cromartie plenty at left cornerback in Bailey’s absence. That would be away from Smith, given that Smith has often lined up as the weakside receiver -- on the offensive left -- for the Ravens in the starting offense’s limited cameos in the preseason.
Smith, who came into the league with some concerns over his reliability catching the ball, has steadily evolved as a pro. He’s always had top-tier speed, and the Maryland strength coaches told teams he was, pound-for-pound, one of the strongest players they had ever had in the program.
But Smith has now earned quarterback Joe Flacco’s trust. And as Flacco showed in the playoff win in Denver, he will throw Smith the ball in tight situations and doesn’t much care who is in the coverage. Defensive coordinators say Flacco, when pressured, is looking push the ball deep rather than check it down. Often, his big plays come late in the down as the rush closes in, making any cornerback who doesn't stick to the assignment, even if the quarterback looks to be in trouble, susceptible to the play over his head.
When the Broncos signed Rodgers-Cromartie, they made no secret they believed he had Pro Bowl talent physically, but they thought his technique, concentration and attention to detail needed some work. How he settles in Thursday night could have a lot of say about how things go.
“Oh yeah, they were straight up with me," Rodgers-Cromartie said. “I liked that, that’s why I signed here. You want to be in the kinds of games this team plays."