TAMPA — Bucs cornerback Ryan Smith realizes the stigma that accompanies a failed performance-enhancing drug test: a player seeks an illegal edge over others.
But Smith said this week that he wasn’t trying to gain any advantage, and that he unknowingly took something that violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Anyone who truly knows him, he says, knows he would never do otherwise.
“It wasn’t anything like that,” Smith said. “I’ve just got to take it on the chin. What’s done is done.
“This is my first time ever being in trouble,” Smith added. “It hurts. This is my first time every being in a situation like this. This is adversity that I have to take on the chin. When I come back, I just have to come back strong, but I’ll be okay.”
The timing of Smith’s four-game suspension comes at the worst time. The energy Todd Bowles’ aggressive 3-4 defense has brought to the secondary represents an early storyline in camp, and Smith said he loves the freedom the defensive backs have in the new system.
"Honestly, yeah, the whole atmosphere is different," Smith said. "We're having fun. That's what the game is for, for us to have fun. It's going to be a good season. I think most of us feel like we can be ourselves. Guys are having fun. They want us to play loose and play freely. This defense is built for us to succeed and make us feel comfortable."
Smith can practice with the team during training camp and play in preseason games, but once the season starts he can’t be at the facility. He can return the week prior to the Bucs’ Oct. 6 road game in New Orleans.
"I can't be on the practice field, I can't be with the team," Smith said. "That hurts. I've just got to be more cautious."
Smith, 25, will lose a quarter of his $2.025 million salary this season.
Smith didn’t want to give too many details of what happened that led to the failed test, but he agreed with coach Bruce Arians’ assessment of the situation that it was a “dumb mistake.” When the suspension was announced, general manager Jason Licht noted that there’s, "extensive training and education for our players regarding the league’s policies, but ultimately each individual is responsible for what they put in their bodies.”
“Like B.A. said, I have to be more aware and I’ll learn from it,” Smith said.
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Smith, a fourth-round pick out of North Carolina Central in 2016, has played in 45 of the team’s 48 games over his first three seasons in the league and has made 16 starts, including six last season, and has also been a major contributor on special teams. He played all 70 defensive snaps in the Bucs’ Week 12 win over Carolina, one of four games last season in which Smith played at least 88 percent of the team’s defensive snaps.
"He talked to his family, he talked to everybody he needed to talk to, talked to the people upstairs, and he has to take the consequences," said fellow cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who is one of Smith's best friends on the team. "He's going to take it, take his four weeks and come back and be ready to go.
"That's my boy. I'll call him, let him know what's going on and all that stuff. But it's no issue, we'll let those four weeks go buy and when he comes back, we're back rolling."
But the suspension definitely leaves Smith’s future with the team uncertain. Once he returns, Smith will have to fight his way back up the depth chart.
Also, he is slated to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. The Bucs could release him at any time before the start of this season and owe him nothing.
The good news for Smith is that he appears to be making an impression on the Bucs’ new coaching staff one week into training camp.
“Ryan has excellent feet, excellent change of direction,” said Bucs cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross said following Thursday’s night practice. “He’s getting his hands on the ball, but now you’ve got to finish them.”
Smith found out about the failed test in March, even though it didn’t become public until three weeks ago. In April, the Bucs drafted a pair of cornerbacks in the first three rounds, though Arians said he was unaware of Smith’s suspension when Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean were selected in the second and third rounds, respectively.
Smith knows the challenge that lies ahead.
“Man, I’ve been fighting my whole life,” Smith said. "It took a lot just for me to get here. Nobody expected me to be here. When I come back, nobody is going to expect me to play. It’s adversity that I’ve faced my entire life. I feel like it’s been me my entire life. It’s nothing new to me, but I’ll be okay.
“In a way, it’s going to make me stronger as far as facing what’s in front of me,” Smith said. “I know I can’t be on the field with my teammates for a little bit, but I have to be strong mentally to come back even stronger to show it doesn’t affect me. I’m going to come back strong.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.