Finishing so poorly in 2015, the Cowboys were in prime position to add two first-round type players with their 4th and 34th overall selections.
Fans wanted more than just first round talent, however, they wanted two players who could make an immediate impact in 2016. They got just that in Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall.
The Cowboys then caused quite an uproar with their second round selection, Notre Dame Linebacker Jaylon Smith.
Smith was a consensus top-ten pick entering the New Year, but on January 1st of this year the trajectory of his entire career changed when he suffered a severe knee injury. Smith needed surgery to reconstruct his left knee, and while he has been working out and running for a few weeks now, the nerve in his knee is still yet to fire, resulting in something called “drop foot.”
Without the firing of that nerve, Jaylon Smith cannot play football.
Clearly, this problem brings many questions for both the Cowboys and Smith in the short and long term. I am in no way a doctor, and I have much less information than the Cowboys do on Jaylon’s health. So this breakdown will focus on one thing, the film. I cannot begin to speculate about the future of nerves that I have no real information about.
So, how does the player perform on the field when he is healthy? And, does the film justify selecting Smith with the 3rd pick in the second round?
The short answer is yes, but lets see why.
First off, Smith’s football IQ is off the charts. He is able to read, recognize, and react so quickly. Here we see Smith quickly read the low-hats and first steps of the offensive linemen to understand that it is a run play. As soon as he reads it, he attacks and blows the offensive lineman into the backfield.
I included this play to really showcase Smith’s athleticism. Lined up as the backside backer on this play, Smith is able to scrape over-top and most importantly, make the tackle. He stays on the running backs’ hip stride for stride, even as he has to maneuver through traffic.
Recognition and athleticism are the two most consistent traits I see in Smith.
No, this isn’t a big play or a sack, but I love Smith’s relentlessness and hitting power here. The offensive line has the four Bigs and the Mike backer, leaving Jaylon to be accounted for by the running back. He makes Texas pay, and I love it.
When I wrote about Nebraska defensive tackle Maliek Collins, I mentioned how it seemed like he was always close to making plays but could never really close. Jaylon Smith doesn’t have that problem whatsoever.
Here we see Smith in pass coverage, but he reads the quarterback, who starts to take off, then comes up and makes a great tackle in space. In case you couldn’t tell, Smith can hit.
Another thing I have grown to love about Smith is his closing speed. Smith comes from the backside of this play, avoids the backside tackle who is supposed to cut him off, and closes on the running back for a loss of yardage. If he can bring that to Dallas, they are going to be alright.
Smith also has a knack for pass coverage. He is excellent in both man and zone schemes, covering up tight ends and running backs alike. We see him here against Michigan. The receivers attempt to run a rub route, trying to confuse the defenders as the receiver comes underneath the tight end.
Instead of panicking and chasing his original man, Smith switches off, remains patient, and then closes quickly to force the incompletion.
Smith always seem to be around the ball, and it results in his ability to make a countless number of plays.
The majority of the negatives I have for Jaylon Smith all come from the question marks regarding his knee injury. If he can return to form, and maintain the athleticism that he displayed at Notre Dame, I have no doubts that he can be a special player for the Cowboys.
I will say, though, that Smith could become a little stronger and more physical. When offensive linemen get into his body, he lacks the strength to power through and shed the block. This could very well present itself as a problem at the next level, if not corrected.
Smith shows a ton of versatility as well, and he can play all three linebacker positions in the Cowboys 4-3 defense.
He even lined up as a defensive end at times and was able to pin his ears back and rush the passer. He is put in that role here, and while no one is there to block him, it is still a fun play to watch. Plus, it furthers my point that Smith is incredibly quick and relentless.
The whole point of the offensive line sliding away and rolling the quarterback out is to get away from that backside defender, but Smith rushes up the field so quickly he is able to get the sack.
A healthy Jaylon Smith automatically becomes a starter for the Cowboys. Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith each have their own injury concerns, but when both healthy, this combination is as good as any in the league.
I could continue on with clip after clip of Smith absolutely dominating the college game, but for the sake of brevity I will lay off a bit. The bottom line for me is that Jaylon Smith will be an incredible player for the Cowboys once he gets back and healthy.