Two games into the preseason, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith looks closer to 100 percent recovered from his devastating knee injury than ever before. His immense potential is now within reach.
Two-plus years removed from tearing his ACL, MCL, and suffering nerve damage in his knee, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith is now showing the Pro Bowl-talent that he so often flashed at the Notre Dame. The Cowboys’ second-round gamble on Smith was a considerable risk due to the talent still on the board at No. 34 overall. There was always the distinct possibility that Smith would never be a capable NFL player.
His play during the 2017 season was encouraging as he amassed 81 tackles, but he wasn’t the impactful presence that he was at Notre Dame. It appeared he was playing around 70 percent speed. His drop foot condition was likely a factor in this.
Back in the spring, Smith announced that he no longer needed a brace for his drop foot, and that his nerve was responding better than ever. That was the development that he and the Cowboys were so desperate to happen, as the ailment was limiting him on the field.
It’s early, but his play through three quarters this preseason has been stellar. He was a top-five talent in the 2016 NFL draft for good reason. The list of linebackers who can move as well as he can as a pass-rusher, run-defender, and coverage option can be counted on one-hand.
The Cowboys have played Smith as the strong-side and weak-side linebacker thus far. This has maximized his situational exposure to see his physical condition.
Playing with confidence is key in the run game. A healthy body not only makes it physically possible to make a play, but also gives a clear mind. That clear mind reduces the lag between an instinctive feel and the body executing.
On the play above, Smith is the middle linebacker, staggered over the weak-side A-gap. As the snap is drawn, immediately there’s disruption in front of Smith as Demarcus Lawrence draws his blocker to the inside via his signature swim move. Strong-side linebacker Damien Wilson does an excellent job of setting an exaggerated edge by sprinting towards the outside shoulder of rookie Mike McGlinchey.
That opened the huge hole for Smith and Joe Thomas to protect.
The running back did his best to lure Smith in for a better angle for him to get upfield, but this is where Smith’s burst and athleticism really stood out. As the back veers outside, Smith quickly went from squared-up, to in pursuit, and he successfully logged a tackle for loss despite giving up too much leverage initially.
The first play in Week 2 against Cincinnati, Smith made a terrific cross-field stop that he wouldn’t have been able to make last year. Dallas again staggered their linebackers, this time with Wilson covering the far slot, and Smith above the left tackle. Naturally, the Bengals ran towards their numbers advantage to the right.
Again Lawrence disrupts the running back, and corner Chidobe Awuzie at least slows down Joe Mixon before he’s stiff-armed to the turf. But immediately Smith arrived to finish the play and get Mixon out of bounds.
Focusing on Smith, he did a terrific job of avoiding Cordy Glenn in space. He takes a stutter step inside to to gain outside leverage, and then simply takes the angle to meet Mixon at the perfect spot. It’s still a gain for the offense, but Smith’s range is outstanding on his pursuit.
The more valuable part of Smith’s recovery is his ability to play on third downs in pass coverage. His main responsibility now that Byron Jones is a boundary player is to smother tight ends and deter targets. This is an extremely difficult thing to ask of most linebackers.
On third-and-eight against the San Francisco 49ers, Smith had his first opportunity to play in man coverage this year. His assignment was a difficult one. George Kittle is one of the more athletic tight ends in the league, and Kittle is ran a deep-in route from the inside slot.
Off the snap, Kittle loses his balance as Smith shuffles his feet and anticipates the eventual in-breaking route. He never loses control of his body, instead able to ride upfield with Kittle to the 10-yard apex. His transition with Kittle is so smooth, it’s as if he’s running the route for him.
The route concept isolates Smith without any immediate help should he fall down or miss a tackle.
Cincinnati actually tried a similar tactic the following with with Tyler Eifert running a deep crosser. Again, Smith stays in the hip pocket from start to finish on the play. There wasn’t a realistic passing window even if Andy Dalton had reached that progression.
Back to his first game against San Francisco, another play where Smith’s balance, speed, and length makes an impact on Kittle is below. A vertical route that Smith must carry upfield, Smith goes stride for stride 27 yards. Jimmy Garoppolo’s throw needed to be right in Kittle’s breadbasket for him to haul it in, but that’s a non-existent margin for error that the defense can’t do much better than.
This is the area where Smith stands the most room to grow as his fluidity and flexibility near full capabilities. Smith was good enough getting after the quarterback at Notre Dame that he would’ve been a first-round pick just as an edge defender had he been healthy. His speed matched his play strength, giving offensive tackles all they could handle.
Smith’s been tasked with only two pass-rush snaps thus far. The one above was very successful as he tipped the pass as quarterback C.J. Beathard’s arm moved forward. The play ended in an incompletion and the drive ended.
What’s most notable is the sheer power he generated against right guard Mike Person. Smith engages Person just one-yard behind the line of scrimmage, then explodes up and through him all the way back until Person’s heels are four yards behind his initial stance. Smith kept his outside arm free and used it to affect Beathard’s passing window.
The Cowboys won’t ask Smith to be a primary rusher, but they’ll need him to be effective when they do call on him. His ability to rush interior gaps or step outside against tackles is something that can separate him from his peers. Few off-ball linebackers are legitimate threats in all three phases of the position.
This young defense can outperform expectations if the linebacker corps is as dynamic as they appear to be. Sean Lee, Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch are an elite athletic trio. Their nickel two-linebacker rotation of Lee and Smith may be the best in the league if Smith continues to play as he has this preseason.