The first eight games of Torrey Smith's NFL career have been far from perfect.
The Ravens' 2011 second-round pick has dropped passes, run incorrect routes and made the type of mistakes you would expect out of a rookie wide receiver.
There has been some bad along the way, but imagine for a second where the Ravens would be without the good.
When Lee Evans was acquired in a preseason trade with the Bills, the veteran wide receiver was expected to be Baltimore's No. 2 wideout, a guy that could complement Anquan Boldin and provide the ability to stretch the field vertically. That plan has been put on hold thanks to an ankle injury which has kept Evans on the sideline the Ravens' last six games.
Other than Boldin, none of the Ravens' healthy wide receivers - Smith, undrafted rookie LaQuan Williams, rookie Tandon Doss and second-year wideout David Reed - had an NFL reception under their belts coming into this year. Things could have gotten ugly, and quickly, if none of those guys stepped up and were able to adapt to the pro level early on.
Smith did just that, starting with a breakout game in a Week 3 win over the Rams, in which he had 152 receiving yards and three first-quarter touchdowns. Quite a performance in a guy's first career start. Since then, Smith added a big 51-yard grab in a win over the Texans and, of course, had Sunday night's dramatic game winning TD reception against Pittsburgh.
Luckily for the Ravens, Smith has elevated his play, and while there's still plenty of room for improvement, he's grown into a No. 2 receiver that can make plays down the field and that quarterback Joe Flacco can trust in a big spot.
"It's been huge, because we need that," head coach John Harbaugh said. "That's something like we felt like we needed in our offense - the ability to push back the defense a little bit and make some plays downfield. I can't say enough about what Torrey's done, yet there's still many things he can do better. Obviously, he wants some of those (drops) back. There are some finer points to the game that he can do better. But, he's off to a very good start."
Through the first half of the season, Smith leads the Ravens in receiving touchdowns with four, and he's third on the team behind Boldin and running back Ray Rice in receiving yards (397). Those numbers are more impressive when you consider that Smith spent the first two games behind Evans on the depth chart, and didn't make a single grab those weeks as the Ravens' third receiver.
The Maryland product has proven his ability to beat a secondary down the field for a big play, and is averaging a whopping 19.8 yards per catch, which ranks third in the NFL among receivers with at least 15 receptions. The vertical threat that Evans provides forces defenses to respect his speed and sit back in coverage, which opens up space underneath for Boldin, Rice and the Ravens' tight ends.
"Even when I first came here, the big thing was bringing speed to the offense, and obviously Torrey has it, and now he's just refining it," Evans said. "It certainly adds a big element to our offense, and as he continues to grow up and learn the game a lot more and continue to make plays, the sky's the limit for him."
With Evans returning to practice yesterday and appearing like he's closing in on a return, the Ravens might finally have the full receiving corps that they were excited about back in training camp.
When healthy, Evans will move back into the No. 2 receiver spot, bumping Smith out of the starting lineup. But that doesn't mean the rookie will disappear. He'll still be counted on to make big plays and help stretch the defense, and the Ravens can have faith that when they go to three-wide receiver sets, Smith can deliver - an assurance they didn't have when the season first started.
Because of how Smith has played these last six weeks, he knows he can perform on the NFL level, and so do the Ravens' coaches. Evans' injury could have been a crushing blow to this team, but in many ways, it might have been a blessing in disguise for Smith, who has gotten a chance to acclimate himself to the pro level in Evans' absence.
"It's big, not only for his confidence, but for our quarterback and our teammates, as well," Evans said. "He's certainly building himself and building his reputation of making big plays. It does wonders for him, and I think as he progresses along, the games are just going to get bigger and tougher, and he has a good platform for what it feels like to make big plays in big situations."