- - Wednesday, September 3, 2014

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — When Michael Campanaro was an elementary school student, he’d pick up a video game controller and play as the Carolina Panthers in the Madden football franchise series.

His top target to throw to, of course, was receiver Steve Smith, a diminutive 5-foot-8 receiver who seemed to outleap and outmuscle defenders on NFL Sundays and in digital form.

After the Baltimore Ravens drafted Campanaro, a 5-11 slot receiver out of Wake Forest, in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL draft this past May, the player he once grew up following from afar suddenly became his teammate.

Campanaro’s early encounters with Smith made quite the impression on the youngster. Not only was Smith, 35, still moving around like a much younger receiver, he was the most studious of the bunch in the early film room sessions.

“He’s the most detail-oriented guy I’ve been around as a wide receiver,” Campanaro said. “It’s crazy because he’s been in the league for so long you’d think he knows it all. He has the most notes in his notebook. It’s a great example to look after.”

Smith is entering his 14th NFL season, his first away from Carolina. The Panthers unceremoniously cut Smith, arguably the greatest player in franchise history, after 13 years of service. The feisty attitude and gritty style of play were still there, but it was apparent the Panthers didn’t think there was much of a long-term future with Smith and the franchise.

The Ravens, in need of a spark on offense after posting one of the worst seasons on that side of the ball in team history in 2013, swooped in and signed Smith to a three-year contract worth $10.5 million.

Smith has been a welcome addition to an offense that lacked a fiery leader a year ago. He has already tried to fill a mentor role with his fellow receivers.

“It just comes [to] the point where we have to be transparent with each other and we have to be able to know each other’s weaknesses, and we have to be their strengths, and vice versa,” Smith said. “That’s really what I’m working on with these guys, is being able to know when they need some help with some things, and also, when I need some help with some things. That’s been really cool and fun to go through.”

A year ago, the Ravens were one-dimensional on offense. The running game was non-existent, tallying a franchise-worst 1,328 yards for the season. Quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 3,912 yards, but tossed 22 interceptions to 19 touchdowns.

Former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott, who is entering his first year as an NFL analyst for the “The NFL Today” on CBS, said Smith could be the missing link for an offense that has since showed signs of improvement throughout the preseason.

“I think last year Joe Flacco struggled [without] a guy that can win one-on-one battles and a guy he can trust,” Scott said. “We all know how explosive Steve Smith is. I think one of his greatest attributes is his competitive nature, coming in and bringing a heartbeat on the offensive side, like [former Ravens receiver] Anquan Boldin was. They really missed that in Baltimore. He’s a guy that you can throw the ball up and he’ll fight for that ball. He’s not going to give up on plays or allow defenders to make him look bad.”

He’s also teaching his fellow receivers, whose average age is 25, some tips on the field and inside the meeting room. Second-year receiver Marlon Brown, who tied a franchise rookie record with seven touchdowns in 2013, said that there’s been a noticeable difference among the wideouts now that Smith has arrived.

“He’ll ask a question and I’m like, ‘I never would have thought of that scenario,’” Brown said. “He’s been playing for so long, he’s seen everything. He can pass that knowledge down to us.”

Brown added that one technique Smith has harped on is having the other receivers make sure they’re coming back to a thrown ball instead of waiting for it to reach them. It’s something Brown admitted he’ll let happen at times, and he’s been working to change at Smith’s advice.

“I think anytime you get a different veteran like Steve, it helps us all out, because each person is different,” Ravens receiver Torrey Smith said. “Each person plays different, and even though people have seen the same things, whether its coverages or routes or whatever, not everyone does it that same. So, to learn from him, it has been awesome for all of us.”

Steve Smith should find a role as Flacco’s underneath option this season in offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s version of the West Coast offense. The new scheme and Smith’s addition should provide a boost to a team that finished 29th a year ago in total offense with just 307.4 yards per game.

While Torrey Smith will remain Baltimore’s primary deep threat, Steve Smith should be able to get plenty of looks in the short passing game, a staple in the Kubiak offense.

“He’s going to bring a defensive mentality and really open things up, if you think about it with the flexibility they have now with him and [tight end Dennis] Pitta working the seams and the middle,” Scott said.

Smith seems aware that he’s not the player he was during his prime in Carolina. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be effective for the last few years of his career. In 13 years, Smith has totaled 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns. He won’t be expected to notch the gaudy numbers he was recording in the mid-2000s, but he’ll look to carry that attitude and aggression that’s stayed with him to his new group of teammates.

“You can never perform at as high a level at 35 that you did at 25,” Smith said. “My job is to go out there and catch what’s catchable and have fun doing it.

“Hopefully, I will accomplish better things statistically, but I’m living the dream. I’m a knucklehead from L.A., and I’ve been in the league for 14 years. I beat statistics, so I’m happy and I’m having fun. I’ve beaten a lot of statistics — of where I grew up, of my culture and also of the NFL itself with guys and their longevity.”

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