The Cowboys’ selection of linebacker Jaylon Smith in last April’s draft has been met with skepticism from the very beginning. It has only increased throughout the offseason.
Dallas spent their second-round pick, the 34th overall in the 2016 draft, on the former Notre Dame standout. They picked Smith despite the knowledge that he was unlikely to play this season after a major knee injury in the Fighting Irish’ bowl game on New Year’s Day.
The Cowboys saw Smith as the fifth-best talent in the class. They also had inside information on his surgery as their own team doctor performed the surgery. Even if it meant getting nothing in 2016, Dallas saw the pick as a chance to add a dynamic talent for the next ten years.
Many onlookers have disagreed. Some feel that the pick would have been better used on a player who could help right away. Others point to the team’s bad history with risky second-round picks and feel they will only get burned again.
Let’s look at the objections to the Jaylon Smith and see how much water they hold.
The Defense Needs Help Now
There is no refuting the basic element of this argument. Obviously, at any pick, you want to add talent that helps right away.
But immediate help is just one part of the draft value equation. Long-term potential is a key consideration at any pick. It has to be if you want to be known as a team that consistently handles the draft well.
When the 34th pick came along, Dallas had just watched defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Kevin Dodd get taken by other teams. Would the Cowboys have drafted one of them? Smith was still the fifth-best talent on their board. It’s hard to say.
Many have pointed to another defensive end, Noah Spence, as the better choice. Spence went five picks later to Tampa Bay. His stock was mainly hurt by a history of drug and alcohol offenses while in college, but Spence is also undersized for a 4-3 defensive end.
Risk is risk, regardless of the type. Spence’s character and size are just as much a cause for concern as Jaylon Smith’s knee. Once you get into the second round, everything starts looking like 50/50 propositions.
For some this comes down to the simple debate of “Jaylon Smith versus Myles Jack.” By the time the draft came along, Jack’s knee issues had been downgraded in terms of his long-term future. He would be able to play now, and perhaps for a few seasons, but there was significant concern about his ability to have a long career.
Smith is the opposite; immediate absence but better long-term prospects. As already mentioned, Dallas’ own team doctor performed the surgery. They had as good an idea of Smith’s present and future potential as any NFL team. All health issues aside, they also saw Smith as the better talent of the two players.
The hindsight argument on “Smith versus Jack” will be a future article on this site and many others. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong in these situations; only lucky and unlucky.
They “Knew” Rolando McClain Was in Trouble
A few weeks ago, the Cowboys front office said they were fully aware of McClain’s personal struggles when they made the decision to draft Jaylon Smith. This only exacerbated the complaints a bout the Smith pick for some and generated some new ones.
Saying that you knew McClain was having problems is like saying you knew the sun would rise. He’s a troubled man. Dallas has treated him like a volatile mercenary for two years, trying to benefit from his skill while keeping the relationship temporary and easily dissolved.
I think the comment about knowing McClain was in trouble was the lesser of evils for public relations. I don’t believe they expected him to be this far gone; likely unable to contribute to the team in 2016 or perhaps ever again.
The alternative was to say that you had no idea how bad things have gotten for McClain. That would’ve been admitting to a lack of awareness or involvement with your players. Which really makes the organization look worse?
Remember, the Cowboys knew they had Anthony Hitchens. He played well as the middle linebacker in 2014. Last year was a bit of a sophomore slump, but I think they still saw Hitchens as a solid insurance policy for 2016. All reports from training camp so far suggest that they were right.
2nd Round History
Some fans think that Dallas’ track record with second round picks was reason not to gamble on Jaylon Smith.
Nothing about Martellus Bennett, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Gavin Escobar, DeMarcus Lawrence, or Randy Gregory has anything to do with the nerve in Smith’s knee. It will recover or not based on medical science and not any sort of history or jinxes.
The argument that Dallas has gambled too much with second-round picks is overblown. The second round generally offers you two types of players:
- First-round talents with risk factors or short-term obstacles
- Low risk, medium reward talents
You likely remember names like Kevin Burnett, Anthony Fasano, or Al Johnson. They were former second-round picks who had solid years in Dallas and with other teams. None of them were ever stars or impact players, though. They are typically what you get when you try to avoid risks.
It’s still too early to say if Gregory and Lawrence were bad picks. Carter had moments of brilliance but couldn’t ever master the fundamentals of his position. Bennett had maturity issues but ultimately was a victim of Jason Witten’s longevity and endurance. Since leaving Dallas he’s proven to be one of the better tight ends in the league. The same could happen with Escobar.
Obviously, the clearest comparison to Jaylon Smith is Sean Lee. Although he didn’t have the same level of perceived risk with his health issues, Lee also wasn’t projected as the same potential talent that Smith was. Still, you’re talking about that “risk vs. reward” debate that comes up with every player.
If Smith’s recovery goes as projected, he and Lee could form the most dynamic linebacker duo in the NFL. Despite all of his missed games, Lee still leads all NFL linebackers in interceptions since entering the league. Smith has that same play-making potential.
Jaylon Smith will or won’t get there based on his own rehabilitation efforts and basic good or bad luck. If he does, it could be the best second-round pick Dallas had made since Larry Allen.
That’s worth some risk.
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The Cowboys had a time when they drafted for immediate need and not a more long-term perspective. It was ugliest period of their draft history and the ramifications were felt for over a decade. Many of the fans who are complaining about the Jaylon Smith pick are likely the same who lambasted Jerry Jones for his previous draft record.
You can’t have it both ways.