OWINGS MILLS — Jimmy Smith reads the newspapers just like anybody else.
He saw the speculation that the Baltimore Ravens would move on from him before the 30-year-old cornerback entered the final year of his lucrative contract. He knows he has struggled to remain healthy and stay out of trouble at times over his nine-year career.
“I read some of your articles,” Smith said Tuesday after the Ravens’ first mandatory minicamp. “I thought maybe I’d be here. The Ravens know how much I love them and I know how much the Ravens love me. I went through some stuff and it could’ve easily went both ways, so I’m excited and happy to still be here.”
Smith called it an accomplishment to reach the final year of his second contract with the organization. Teams frequently move on from veterans early in favor of younger, less expensive players before stated deals are completed in today’s NFL.
Smith accounts for $15.85 million against the Ravens’ salary cap this year. The organization could have saved more than $9 million by releasing him. Smith will be the league’s second highest-paid cornerback in 2019, and he intends to show why.
“I always want to show that, but I’d rather just let my play speak,” Smith said. “Words ain’t going to do anything for me. At the end of 20 games this year, hopefully I can sit here and say ‘I did exactly what I wanted to do.’”
Smith was Baltimore’s first-round draft pick in 2011. He joined a defense that featured legendary Ravens like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs. All of a sudden, he’s become the last of the old guard.
Lewis, Reed and Ngata have all retired. Reed played his final season split between the Houston Texans and New York Jets while Ngata played four years elsewhere before he formally retired as a Raven in May. Smith has seen countless players come and go over nine seasons, but Suggs’ departure in free agency this year might have been the most surprising.
“I wouldn’t say shocked because I watched a little bit go every year. You can imagine all the faces I’ve seen over the years,” he said. “‘Sizz’ was kind of the biggest shock to me, just because I never thought he would ever leave here. He is the Ravens. I figured he would always be here.”
Smith said his individual goals for next season are to earn his first Pro Bowl selection and reach a career-high five interceptions. A career year after 30 isn’t typical, but Smith has the NFL’s Iron Man opposite him to emulate.
Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr has started every game since he joined the league in 2008. Entering his third season with the Ravens, Carr’s 13-year streak stands at 176 consecutive games started, the most among active NFL defenders.
“I took his nutrition guy. He’s the guy that started 190 million games, so yeah, I took a page out of his notebook, got with his nutrition guy,” Smith said. “Playing the cornerback position 13 years in the league is not easy to do. To watch a guy like that get it done year in and year out, hat’s off to him. You want to follow some of the stuff that he’s doing, obviously, because he’s doing it the right way.”
Following a strict diet was new to Smith last year.
“When you’re young, you eat chicken wings, hot wings, pizza. You go out and play a game and it’s no problem,” he said. “The older you get, you start to actually feel like one candy bar kind of slowed me down today. You have to pay attention to that, but when you’re young, you don’t really notice it.”
So, has he cut out the junk food entirely?
“Absolutely not. Friday is cheat day,” Smith said. “We all know that.”
Smith struggled early last season after returning from a four-game suspension. His play improved as the year went on, and he intercepted a pair of passes in Baltimore’s Week 17 win over the Cleveland Browns that earned the Ravens their first playoff berth since 2014.
“Jimmy has gotten better since I’ve been here, every single year,” Carr said. “He’s been a guy that’s proven himself in this organization for a very long time. I’m excited to go back to work with him this year.”
The secondary – particularly the cornerbacks – was the strength of Baltimore’s No. 1-ranked defense last season. First-year general manager Eric DeCosta made sure it would remain one by keeping the cornerback room virtually unchanged.
The Ravens’ picked up the option on Carr’s contract to keep him around one more season. They kept Smith despite all the speculation they would dump his lofty contract. They extended fourth-year nickelback Tavon Young to prevent him from reaching free agency following next season. Anthony Averett returns for his second NFL season and Maurice Canady has contributed at times in his young career.
“They believe in us. [Owner Steve] Bisciotti believes in us. Our coaching staff and the people upstairs, they believe in our secondary,” Smith said.
Count head coach John Harbaugh among the believers.
“The standard is high for those guys. We’ve got a lot of resources committed to the secondary, and we think those guys are really, really good players. We value the secondary. We value coverage,” he said. “We love having those guys back there, and I expected those guys to play at the very highest level in the National Football League this year.”
Follow Sean Grogan on Twitter: @Sean_CecilWhig