DE Corey Smith's first regular season NFL action resulted in a sack in Baltimore in 2002
Corey Smith was only nine plays into his NFL career when he recorded his first sack, a seven-yard takedown of Baltimore quarterback Chris Redman on September 15, 2002.
That Smith was even on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' active roster, just a few months after joining the team as an undrafted free agent, was impressive enough. That he had taken his very first chance to play, toward the end of a 15-0 Buc victory in Baltimore, and turned it into an eye-opening moment…well, it seemed like the beginning of a rapid ascent for a young NFL career.
Only it wasn't. And furthermore, Smith wouldn't have wanted it that way.
"I personally like to struggle before I get somewhere, because if I don't I'm not going to appreciate where I am," said Smith. "I'd rather struggle to get something than have it handed to me, because then I know that I worked for it and its real."
Sure enough, the remainder of 2002 and the following season had their share of professional struggles for Smith, who played in just five more games after that Baltimore debut. Now his career is about to take another interesting turn, and it could lead him back to that spot where he was two years ago, on the verge of a productive career in the National Football League.
Last week, Smith was the first player selected in the 2004 NFL Europe League drafted. As one of seven Buccaneers allocated to the NFLEL this winter, Smith was put into a pool with young hopefuls from all 32 NFL teams. The six NFL Europe teams then drafted those players considered the cream of the crop to form the shells of their rosters. Four of the first six players drafted were defensive lineman, and Smith's speed-rushing possibilities were obviously too attractive for the Berlin Thunder to pass up with the first pick.
"(That) kind of tells me that a lot of coaches liked what they saw when they were looking at me, looking at the film," said Smith. "It tells me that they look at this defense and see (Defensive Line Coach) Rod Marinelli and his influence. He's helped a lot of great linemen, and I think a combination of his reputation and the fact that I made the team says a lot for me."
The decision whether or not to head overseas for the entire spring – generally a mutual agreement between the team and player – is not an easy one. Every player knows the tradeoff; on one hand is the opportunity to play regularly and regain one's game-speed skills, and on the other is months of instructional work with NFL teammates and coaches. Smith eventually convinced himself that he could use the former more than the latter, and the obvious value NFL Europe coaches see in his skills made the decision go down easier.
"A couple of guys were saying to me that it's going to be a long, long year," said Smith, contemplating an almost non-stop run of NFLEL training camp, a 10-game European season, Buccaneers' training camp and potentially another 16-game campaign. "But I was thinking to myself that I haven't really had a whole year of playing in awhile. I came in and played only six games (in 2002) before I got hurt, and last year I didn't play until the end of the season.
"I think this is a good thing, to be playing a real, full season rather than just coming back here and filling a backup role again. I think this will help me get my skills back. I want a chance to upgrade my skills rather than just sit back and watch."
In his rookie campaign, Smith played in a total of five games before a knee sprain forced him to injured reserve for the remainder of what would prove to be a Super Bowl championship effort for the Buccaneers. Healthy again, he went to camp with the Bucs again in 2003 but was released on the final cutdown to 53 players. In December, after injuries took down defensive ends Greg Spires and Ellis Wyms, Smith was re-signed in time to play in the season finale against Tennessee.
Even before bringing him back in December, the Bucs had planned to re-sign Smith for 2004 and send him to Europe. Though considered small for a defensive end at 6-2 and 250 pounds, Smith has good quickness and pass-rush skills. His size-speed combination also makes him a potentially valuable special teams player. Smith has had the better parts of two years to work under Marinelli's highly-valuable tutelage, and now both he and the team would like to see how his game, honed of some of its rough edges, will translate onto the field in live situations.
Of course, as is the NFLEL tradeoff, Smith also knows he will be missing four more months of Marinelli's lessons. Though he's sure to get good coaching from the Thunder staff (Rick Lantz is Berlin's Head Coach and Reggie McElroy tutors the defensive linemen), Smith plans to incorporate Marinelli's teachings during his time in Europe.
"I've been getting with Rod, running down some notes and going over what I need to focus on, what I need to improve," said the former North Carolina State standout. "We want to make sure I don't pick up any bad habits. Instead of just letting it go over there, I'm going to have a plan."
The overarching plan is for Smith to hit the ground running in Orlando next July, for his NFLEL momentum to carry him into a spot on the 53-man roster again. If he can succeed in that goal, Smith will follow in the path of such Buccaneer veterans as defensive tackle Chartric Darby and cornerback Corey Ivy, who followed strong NFL Europe seasons with significant roles in Tampa.
"I see Chuck (Darby)…he's undersized, kind of like I am for my position, but he still comes out and makes big plays," said Smith. "That's a real role model for me. I can look at the situation and say, 'Chuck made it. Corey Ivy made it. Why can't I make it?' Especially because I'm coming back to the same team, the same defense. It's not a bad idea."
NFL Europe is in fact a good idea for young, raw players like Smith, if they can find a way to take advantage of it. Though he admits that the chance to see Europe for the first time was a part of his decision to play in the NFLEL, Smith isn't going to waste the spring simply sightseeing. He has seen the tough times, and now he's ready to work his way back to the top.
"I'm actually really confident about it," he said. "I'm more confident than if I had never had any struggles doing this in the first place."