As a fourth-round draft choice in 2015, Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith was expected to fill the void left by Pernell McPhee’s free agent departure to Chicago.
Little did Smith or the Ravens know that he would have to also fill an even larger hole left by the season-ending Achilles injury to six-time Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs in Week 1.
It’s hard enough finding the fit comfortable in one pair of humongous cleats, let alone two.
After getting his first two NFL sacks in a Week 4 win over Pittsburgh, Smith went nine games without one before he registered 3.5 sacks in the final three weeks of the season. A lack of a consistent pass rush was certainly one of the factors in a 5-11 season.
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With Suggs still on the physically unable to perform list — a status that should change next week — Smith has shown improvement through the first two weeks of training camp.
How much improvement could be evident Thursday when the Ravens open their preseason schedule against the reigning NFC champion Carolina Panthers at M&T Bank Stadium.
“I feel good about myself,” Smith said after practice Tuesday in Owings Mills, Md. “I think I will do a lot of great things this year … getting a lot of reps and learning from my mistakes is making me better. Coach put me in situations in which I can do a lot of things, to dropping in coverage, playing inside and playing outside.”
Asked what one thing he has to improve the most, Smith said, “setting the edge and being a better pass rusher. You said give you one, right? But I gave you two. Those two positions … I know that is why I was brought here.”
Smith, who played two years at Kentucky after starting in junior college, was well aware of the comparison to McPhee, who parlayed a solid rookie season in 2011 (six sacks) and an even better 2014 (7.5 sacks) into a five-year, $38.75 million deal with the Bears.
Even before Suggs was injured, Smith knew that the Ravens expected him to create the same kind of havoc in the backfield as McPhee did before leaving.
“That was my role, and like I said, that is what I was brought in here to do — to replace him,” Smith said of the 27-year-old McPhee, who is currently on the PUP list for the Bears after undergoing off-season knee surgery. “I think I’m doing a good job at it.”
Smith said that during a film session Monday, Coach John Harbaugh showed the 6-foot-4, 275-pound linebacker harassing Ravens quarterbacks twice in successive plays.
“He [Harbaugh] was like, ‘OK, I see you 90!’,” Smith recalled. “That got me more hyped, like, ‘OK, now I’m doing my job and filling that role.’ That was a good thing for coach to say to me to make me feel more confident in myself.”
Harbaugh said Tuesday that he would like to see Smith carve his own identity with the Ravens.
“I think the Pernell McPhee comparison is fair, but I think it’s getting a little old,” Harbaugh said of the former fifth-round draft choice who, like Smith, went from junior college to the SEC (Mississippi State).
“It’s time to move on from that,” Harbaugh said. “He is his own man. He is his own player. He’s a really good player.
“He’s having the best camp he’s had here by far. We have really high expectations. I’m on him all the time. I tell him all the time, because my expectations are so high, ‘I’m going to be riding you on a regular basis.’ And he loves it. He wants to be coached and he just gets better every single day. We’re excited about him.”
Smith believes his improvement toward the end of last season was a byproduct of getting more reps.
With Harbaugh expecting both Suggs and Elvis Dumervil to be ready for the season opener Sept. 11 against Buffalo, Smith knows he will likely be in a backup role. Given that Suggs is coming off his second Achilles surgery at age 33, and Dumervil is 32, Smith also knows he has to be ready.
“I’m going to play my part,” he said. “That is something I have to do — play my part. Those guys are great leaders, and I can’t wait until they get back. For right now, my job is to be with the ‘ones’ and set the edge and be a great pass rusher.”