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.
Cowboys Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick
The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.
Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:
Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back. https://t.co/hCMYoE8fEh
Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.
Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.
The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.
For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!
DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class
Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.
Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.
One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring.
ESPN.com ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.
ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures. https://t.co/aJ7H1n001t
DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.
Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.
Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.
When it Mattered Most, Cowboys Offensive Line Protected Dak Prescott
Throughout the 2018 NFL season, one of the major story lines surrounding the Dallas Cowboys was how frequently Dak Prescott was taking sacks. It's an area that the Cowboys will have to look at in the offseason to better protect their franchise quarterback moving forward. In the playoffs, however, Dak Prescott and the offensive line were much better at keeping their prized possession upright than they were in the regular season.
In the regular season, Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times for an average of 3.5 times a game. There was only one game where he wasn't sacked at all, way back in week two against the New York Giants. Four times this season, the Cowboys' quarterback was sacked five or more times. The New Orleans Saints got him for a season high seven times.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak was "kept clean" -- not pressured -- on 63% of his drop backs during the regular season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. When kept clean, Prescott completed 74.1% of his passes, which was good for 5th in the NFL during the regular season. He was under pressure 37% of the time, which was the sixth highest rate in the NFL and his completion percentage dropped to 52.6%, still good for 10th in the NFL. It was better than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield.
During the playoffs, Prescott's "kept clean" percentage rose from 63% to 68% and he was only sacked once in each game. The one sack against the Los Angeles Rams probably shouldn't have been called a sack as the referee blew the whistle because Prescott was "in the grasp"...
...of his offensive lineman.
During the playoffs, the Cowboys offensive line kept the pressure off of Prescott at a better rate, allowing him to be pressured on only 31.9% of his drop backs. Meaning he was kept clean at an improved rate from the regular season at 68.1% of his drop backs. This while playing against two teams that are really good at rushing the passer. The Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks both finished in the top half of the league in sacks this season and feature players like Aaron Donald, Jarran Reed, and Frank Clark who all had double-digit sacks.
As we know, pressure rates and sacks aren't all completely on the offensive line. The quarterback, wide receivers, and the play calling all factor in, but the Cowboys are trending in the right direction with their pass protection. A full offseason for Connor Williams in the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning program, better health for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and -- fingers crossed -- Travis Frederick, should all help the offensive line play at a higher level heading into the 2019 season.
It can't be overstated how important it will be to get Travis Frederick back into the fold this season. Joe Looney was good, and that might be overstating it a bit. He was not noticeable on most plays during the season, but getting your All-Pro center back will tremendously help the offense in every facet of the game. Frederick's one of the smarter players in the NFL, who helps everyone on the offense to see the blitzes and calls out the protections. Both his mental and physical ability will be a welcomed site when the Cowboys begin practicing in the offseason.
With another year of growth for the quarterback and for the young pieces along the offensive line, and with a full offseason for Dak Prescott to grow with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Blake Jarwin, the Cowboys should be better next season at keeping the quarterback clean.
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