If you’re like me, one of the first things you did when the Dallas Cowboys drafted Jaylon Smith was drop your jaw. I mean, how could the Cowboys take someone at 34th overall who very likely won’t play a snap this season, and may never take another one again? Once I turned on the tape of him at Notre Dame, that answer became a lot less murky.
Ladies and gentlemen, Jaylon Smith is an absolute star at linebacker. Throughout his college career, he has showed instincts, anticipation, patience, toughness, and knowledge. His tackling mechanics are excellent and he has a great feel for the play. Once he makes his mind up about where the ball is going, his pursuit and athleticism is second to none in this draft class.
Having said all that, one of the more intriguing stat lines that I saw for him, which I’m sure many of you are already aware of, is his lack of interceptions in college. I found it a little troublesome that someone who would’ve likely been picked in the top 10 didn’t tally a single interception, and only three forced fumbles, over a three year span at Notre Dame. How is this possible?
In order to answer this question, I went back and watched his tape from college. I wanted to get a better understanding of his lack of production.
Was it the scheme he played in where he was never put in a good position to make plays? Was it a lack of instincts where he just wasn’t putting himself in the right places at the right times? Was it just simply a lack of catching ability where he was in the correct place at the right time, but just couldn’t haul the pass in?
In all five of his games from 2015 that I watched, he only had his hands on one semi-catchable ball, and damn near came up with the turnover. In order for him to have landed the catch, he would’ve had to keep the ball off the ground on a diving attempt, which is obviously much easier said than done. See the play below:
Jaylon has an uncanny ability in the open field. Whether he’s tackling, or reading the eyes of the quarterback, he always seems to make great plays. I’d argue another factor that contributed to his lack of turnover production was the fact that he can essentially blanket all threats that he saw in coverage. Quarterbacks rarely threw in his direction and when they did, opposing teams tended to scheme against him.
The clip below is a great example of his coverage ability. You can see that the tight end is supposed to draw Jaylon’s coverage up field to allow the receiver to cross his face on the drag and pick up yards. Jaylon’s instincts allow him to see the play developing and only allow a small gain. Because of abilities like this, teams tended to throw away from the talented linebacker.
When watching his tape, it’s easy to see why Jaylon is such a high prospect. His versatility cannot be understated. He will line up as a defensive back on some downs to play man-to-man coverage, and then on the next play he can line up on the edge as a defensive end. I believe this is the main reason he wasn’t able to record an interception.
I’d argue that he was used to bring pressure on almost the same amount of snaps that he dropped back in coverage. Whether he played a linebacker role and blitzed up the middle/on the edge, or put his hand in the dirt, his pass rush skills were called on early and often.
So, Why Not More Interceptions?
I honestly believe that had Jaylon Smith played more of a concrete inside linebacker role at Notre Dame, he would’ve had much higher interception totals. As I said from the previous section, his defensive coordinator recognized quickly how versatile a player he was, and moved him all over the field, which didn’t do him any favors in terms of turnover numbers.
His Role Moving Forward
With Rolando McClain’s contract expiring at the end of this season, I see Jaylon lining up as the all-important MIKE linebacker in our base 4-3 front. This is a guy who can fly to the ball and is big enough to take on blockers, allowing Sean Lee to navigate space and make tackles. Smith has a great feel for open space and can read a quarterback’s eyes as good as anyone in this draft class.
So, to those who are weary of Jaylon’s potential at MIKE linebacker, I’m telling you now that I don’t think it should be a concern. His fit in our defense is going to allow him to play comfortably in space, and use his natural instincts to make plays.