- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Baltimore Ravens improved their offense Friday when they signed wide receiver Steve Smith to a three-year, $11.5 million contract, although that's really beside the point. Any wide receiver signed by the Ravens this offseason -- Julian Edelman, Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks -- would have significantly helped Joe Flacco and the NFL's 29th-ranked offense.
What Smith brings that no one else out there could is attitude. The Ravens are meaner. They're tougher. They now have a fiery edge that was missing from an offense that was caught sleepwalking through most of last season. Smith brings a much-needed punch, and he has been known to throw one in his career.
The Ravens made the mistake of trading Anquan Boldin after their Super Bowl season. They paid the price for it on every failed third-down try and each frustrating trip in the red zone. At the end of the season, coach John Harbaugh lamented the fact that the Ravens never replaced Boldin.
This is the Ravens' answer to Boldin. Smith is just as fearless when it comes to taking a hit and fighting for extra yards. He's just as tenacious when fighting for the ball when it's tight coverage. He's just as clutch when it comes to wanting the ball in the most critical situations.
How does Smith feel about replacing Boldin?
"I'm not Anquan Boldin," Smith said. "I respect the heck out of ‘Q,’ and what ‘Q’ brings to the table is what ‘Q’ brings to the table. I'm Steve Smith, and what I bring to the table as a Baltimore Raven, I have to earn that, and my time on the field will display what I bring to the table."
Smith is right. Boldin is bigger, but Smith is badder. He's 5-foot-9, 185 pounds of heart, muscle and pure intensity. During his 13 years with the Carolina Panthers, he built a reputation for intimidating everyone on the field when he's often the smallest one on it.
His goal isn't to just beat a defender. Smith wants it to hurt. After winning his matchup with Aqib Talib last season, Smith didn't take it easy on him even after the New England cornerback left the game early because of a hip injury, telling Talib to "ice up, son."
"We've added one of the top competitors in the NFL to the Ravens," general manager Ozzie Newsome said.
Smith is also one of the most complicated figures in the NFL. He's so beloved in Carolina that fans protested outside the stadium after his release Thursday. He's also the same player who punched his own teammate during a training camp practice in 2008 and got suspended two games.
As one Charlotte columnist put it, "He could be a jerk. But hey, he was our jerk."
Even though the Ravens were considered the favorite to land Smith, it was legitimate to question whether Harbaugh wanted someone with Smith's extreme personality. After the Super Bowl, the Ravens let most of their outspoken players go elsewhere. Boldin was traded, safety Ed Reed wasn't re-signed and safety Bernard Pollard was cut.
Smith says he doesn't believe the Ravens want him to change after talking to team officials for two days. In fact, what won Smith over was their message of "be yourself."
"Steve is a Ravens-style football player," Harbaugh said. "He always has been in our eyes, it's just that he's been playing for another team. We've respected and admired the way he plays, and we've always been challenged playing against him. I've known him ever since he came into the league, and we've always had a great relationship. The last two days, however, have given all of us with the Ravens an opportunity to get to know him on another level, and now, we're even more impressed."
Smith isn't the same wide receiver who went to five Pro Bowls, and he's the first to acknowledge that. A few months away from turning 35, Smith said he's no longer a No. 1 wide receiver.
The Ravens don't need him to be Smith from 2005 when he caught 103 passes or the Smith from 2011 when he produced 1,394 yards receiving. They want Smith to become that third complementary piece to the passing attack. The Ravens' offense can resemble the one that exploded during the Super Bowl run if Smith, wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta are all catching passes.
Torrey Smith can stretch the field, Pitta can run intermediate routes over the middle and Steve Smith can be that dependable target who delivers when the Ravens need him the most. Steve Smith remains a third-down monster. His signature move is spinning the ball after he picks up a first down.
Making the pivotal play in the fourth quarter is also still part of Smith's game. The biggest moment in Carolina's 2013 season was when Smith caught a 19-yard pass on fourth-and-10 to continue a game-winning drive against the Miami Dolphins, even though everyone knew where the ball was going.
"Steve is a proven player who has performed his best in big games and on the biggest stages like the playoffs and Super Bowl," Newsome said. "He adds toughness to our offense, big-play ability and leadership to our team."
The Ravens could've signed a bigger receiver. But Smith, who hasn't missed more than two games in a regular season since 2005, is more dependable than Nicks.
The Ravens could've added a younger receiver. But Smith has a more proven track record than Edelman and Decker, who had All-Pro quarterbacks throwing the ball to them.
In the end, the Ravens chose Smith over everyone else for one reason: He doesn't just help them win; he has the mental toughness to will them to win.
"I believe and the Baltimore Ravens believe that I can help increase the chances of us being successful, and so that's what we're going to do," Smith said. "We're going to swing for the fence, and there’s nothing wrong with that."