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Torrey Smith looks ready to take next step as Ravens’ top receiving threat

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628x471Torrey Smith avoided the dreaded sophomore slump last season by making noticeable strides as a wide receiver. He will be counted on to continue evolving entering his third season, as circumstance has thrust him to the top of the depth chart.

During his first two seasons, Smith, 24, had the luxury of learning the ins and outs of the position from veteran wideout Anquan Boldin.

Now, with Boldin in San Francisco and the team trying to put together an effective receiving corps following injuries to tight end Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, the Ravens will need Smith to become a complete receiver.

So far this preseason, Smith has answered the challenge. While the Ravens’ first-team offense struggled to move the ball during the team’s second preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons, Smith did his part by catching a short slant pattern in stride before dodging a tackle attempt by safety William Moore and bolting past the secondary for a 77-yard touchdown.

Smith demonstrated on the play that his hands, once viewed as a liability, have greatly improved. The University of Maryland product also showed that he’s still fast, maybe even faster than he was during his first two seasons, when he established himself as one the NFL’s best deep threats.

Still, it’s hard to gauge just how much Smith has improved since his first two seasons. That being said, we should have a better understanding after the team’s first few regular-season contests.

Until then, many eyes will be on Smith and the rest of the Ravens’ corps.

When Baltimore plays host to the Carolina Panthers at 8 p.m. Thursday night in the all-important third preseason game, fans and coaches will focus intently on the other receivers because no one has emerged as viable option to start opposite Smith, and Smith because this is a new role for him with more responsibility. For what it’s worth, Smith recorded a team-high eight catches for 103 yards during last season’s third preseason game, a 48-17 thumping of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Even with Boldin in Baltimore last season, opposing defenses often assigned their top cornerback the task of covering Smith, and they often had safety help on Smith’s side of the field because of his speed and big-play capability. As a result, there were eight games where Smith failed to record at least three receptions. Despite that, he still managed to lead the Ravens in touchdown catches (eight) and ranked second behind only Boldin in receiving yards (855).

But more will be needed from Smith this season. If Smith can continue doing what he’s done in his first two seasons on a more consistent basis, he should answer some of the questions the Ravens have at receiver.