OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The highlight of Baltimore Ravens' practice on Wednesday came when cornerback Jimmy Smith picked off Joe Flacco and playfully taunted the quarterback as he made his way to the end zone.
This outburst of swagger isn't surprising considering it keyed Smith's breakthrough season last year. The unusual part was that Smith had the ball in his hands.
Boosting turnovers is a priority for Smith and is the last step in turning the 2011 first-round draft pick from an emerging cornerback to a Pro Bowl one. Smith made only two interceptions last season and has picked off four passes in 39 career games.
"As a corner, you want to have 15 interceptions," Smith said. "It might not happen being a man-to-man corner, but you want to watch the film and see exactly what you did wrong or how you can make your game a little bit better. I didn’t play a lot of off-coverage, so when I play off-coverage I look for certain things about how I’m playing it and what I can do to make it better so that teams will throw at me a lot and I can get some interceptions.”
Smith is the most physically gifted cornerback in team history since Chris McAlister. Just like Smith, McAlister had the size and speed that teams want at the position.
At his best, McAlister would not only shut down one side of the field but he would make plays. He returned five of his 26 career interceptions for touchdowns.
Smith believes he can reach that playmaker level. To get there, he doesn't necessarily have to improve his ball skills. It's getting better at the mental part of the game.
"You want to get a few plays every game where you feel like you could steal something," Smith said. "That’s more of what I’m focused on. I know our defense, and I try to get better at mastering that. But, at the same time, I want to understand the offense and what they’re trying to do to me so I can make more plays for our team.”
There was a time not too long ago when there were doubts that Smith would become a starter, much less the top defender on the team.
His slow development can be chalked up to bad timing and bad luck. As a rookie three years ago, Smith didn't suit up for his first practice until training camp because of the player lockout.
Then, on the first play of his first game, he suffered a high ankle sprain on the opening kickoff. That sidelined him for four games. In his second season, Smith missed five games because of a sports hernia injury.
"[I’m] not making any excuses, but that’s just how it happened," Smith said.
Last season, Smith lived up to the expectations of being the No. 27 overall pick by staying healthy and playing with confidence. He broke up 16 passes while limiting some of the best receivers in the league: Cincinnati's A.J. Green, Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown and Chicago's Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.
Much of that success came from keeping his eyes in the right place and knowing where help is.
"To me confidence kind of follows talent and also follows understanding the position really well," coach John Harbaugh said. "He, more than ever since he's been here, understands how to play corner. It makes playing a lot easier. You're not chasing your tail as a corner out there. That's what is breeding that confidence."
The Ravens expressed their confidence in Smith by picking up his 2015 option, which will pay him somewhere between $6.5 million and $6.9 million. This was a no-brainer to keep Smith, a cornerback who is getting better and better each season.
Asked how high his ceiling is, Smith smiled and said, “You can’t ask me that. Can you touch the sky? That’s how high it is.”