Taking over for Ray Lewis was never really a problem last season for Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Daryl Smith.
Signed as a free agent in June 2013, Smith stepped into a position that Lewis held for 17 seasons. The newcomer led the Ravens with 123 tackles last year and set career highs with five sacks and three interceptions.
"Daryl did a great job. Everything we expected and more," coach John Harbaugh said. "We thought he would play well for us, but all the intangibles, you just don't really know about a guy until you have him. He played every snap on defense. That's quite an accomplishment."
For Smith, it wasn't about carrying on for Lewis. The former Georgia Tech standout merely wanted to continue the high level of play he displayed during a nine-year run with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"I never really did think about (replacing Lewis) until it was brought up in a setting like this," Smith said Thursday following the team's final mandatory minicamp practice. "I didn't concentrate on doing anything but making my plays, picking up the defense and playing ball."
Lewis used to gather the players, scream at the top of his lungs and dance during pregame introductions. Smith would have none of that.
"He didn't try to be anybody else. He leads in his own way," Ravens lineman Chris Canty said. "He's confident, he understands this game. He's played at a high level for a long time. A lot of people might not recognize that."
The Ravens do. After watching him shine on a defense that has long had a reputation for greatness, the team rewarded the 32-year-old Smith with a four-year, $16.1 million contract in March.
"I definitely wanted to come back," Smith said. "They gave me a shot last year, and I want to finish my career here."
Smith owns the Jaguars franchise record for career tackles with 1,096 and led Jacksonville in tackles in 2006, 2009 and 2010. But the numbers he put up with Baltimore last year were even more impressive because he called the plays for a defense that included stars such as Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Canty.
"He has a good feel for the game, understands the defense and can put himself and other players in position to make plays," Canty said. "It's great to be able to line up with a guy like that, someone who has that kind of command, that kind of feel for the game and the defense."
Smith would have taken far more enjoyment from last season if the Ravens reached the playoffs. Their 8-8 record was a disappointment, but he hopes the experience he gained in the system will lead to more wins this season.
"We started to learn each other last year," he said, "and this year we'll be able to trust each other even more."
After Thursday's practice — which was attended by owner Steve Bisciotti — the players will have five weeks to study the playbook before meeting again at training camp.
"The offseason program has been good," Harbaugh said. "I feel like we got the most we could have gotten out of it. We're as far along as we could be at this point in time. Now the next thing is rest, recovery and preparation for training camp. We'll build from that."
Quarterback Joe Flacco has been asked to learn a new offense under coordinator Gary Kubiak. When he comes to training camp, the hard part will be behind him.
"There's no doubt, without this we'd be starting from Square One," Flacco said. "These practices will help us."
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