Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith get ready for practice during… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
In one corner is a soft-spoken 27-year-old who was the biggest surprise of last year's training camp. Cary Williams, who went undrafted out of Division II Washburn and was later plucked from the Tennessee Titans' practice squad, started every game for the Ravens in 2011.
In the other corner is a confident 2011 first-round pick whom some assumed would be handed Williams' job this summer. Jimmy Smith carried himself like a playful young man fresh out of college during his rookie season, but teammates say the 24-year-old has grown up a lot in the past year.
Williams and Smith are competing for the right to start opposite of cornerback Lardarius Webb in the revered Ravens defense. It's one of a few camp battles that appear to be undecided as the Ravens wrap up the second week of camp. But no matter who earns a starting gig, both bring size and coverage skills to the secondary, which means both will still play. A lot.
"I think we would be foolish to sit talent down," strong safety Bernard Pollard said. "The competition between those guys is going to be high. They set the bar high with how they played last year. But [considering how often we used] the nickel last year, they all are going to play."
The Ravens used their nickel package — five defensive backs — for 50 percent of their defensive snaps in 2011, the seventh-highest percentage in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. They also started three cornerbacks in four games, including January's AFC championship game .
Three or more cornerbacks may be a common sight for the Ravens this season as a gauntlet of upper-echelon quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger will be standing in the way of a fifth consecutive playoff berth. The Ravens are slated to face a former Pro Bowl quarterback in 13 of their 16 games — including Roethlisberger and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton twice — and six of the top 10 passing offenses from last season .
"Two corners are not going to get you through the season or even a game," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "You get teams that run three [wide receivers]. New England, who knows what the hell personnel they might be in? So you're going to use all those guys."
The explosion of high-octane passing attacks in the NFL now means that having three or four quality cornerbacks is no longer a luxury. Pees said both Williams and Smith will play as many snaps as Webb, but earning that vacant starting spot means nearly everything to the combatants in this key position battle.
"I'd be lying if I told you that [starting] didn't mean anything to me. I take pride in what I do," said Williams, who will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end. "It means a lot to be a starting cornerback for the Baltimore Ravens. It's everything I dreamed of, everything I've worked for."
Smith echoed those comments, saying that "absolutely means something to be the No. 1 guy."
Smith ran with the first-team defense during offseason workouts this spring while Williams rehabbed after hip surgery. In training camp, he has made a few nice plays, but he has been beaten for some long receptions .
He also has left three practices early, including Thursday, when he fell to the turf and stayed on the ground for about 90 seconds before slowly walking off the field with help from the trainers. Pees didn't know the exact diagnosis, but speculated that it was a back issue.
Still, Smith feels he has a much better grasp of the playbook than he did as a rookie, is in better shape and has caught up to the elite speed of the NFL.
"He has grown tremendously, just mentally, going out there and knowing the game, not just covering a guy," Webb said.
Webb also praised Williams, saying that he is "going to be a great corner."
Pollard said last week that Williams was showing few signs of rust after he rehabbed his surgically-repaired hip labrum all spring. Though Williams hasn't come up with any memorable interceptions in camp, he has covered well and prevented big receptions.
"I feel like I got a great year under my belt and this is a building year for me," said Williams, who broke up 18 passes in 2011 but is still looking for his first NFL interception. "I want to maximize my potential."
And the Ravens are hoping that with Jimmy Smith and Williams pushing each other both cornerbacks will do just that.
"We're very lucky to have two big guys like that fighting for that position," Pees said. "Both of them are handling it very well. They're handing it very well in the classroom and they're both playing well on the field. I think right now it's still a great competition."