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Jaylon Smith was Always High Risk, but Nobody Expected This

Back in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys used the 34th overall pick on Linebacker Jaylon Smith from Notre Dame. Due to a career-threatening knee injury earlier that January, Smith had fallen from being a potential top-five prospect to one of the riskiest players in the class. But while Jaylon’s health has never been an issue for the Cowboys, he’s now become a very different kind of liability.

If not for the injury, Smith may very well have been drafted right along with Ezekiel Elliott, Jalen Ramsey, and others at the top of the 2016 draft. The drop to the 2nd Round was solely about injury concern, with some even questioning how highly Dallas took him given the potential that he might never play or at least would struggle with health throughout his career.

As expected when he was drafted, Jaylon spent 2016 inactive and rehabilitating his injury. Due to its catastrophic potential, the injury required intense rehab and preventative conditioning to avoid recurring issues. To borrow the college term, he essentially redshirted his rookie season and joined the Cowboys fully in 2017.

Thanks to that hard work, Smith has never missed a game from 2017-2020. He started six games that year and has been a full-time starter the last three seasons.

Almost immediately and especially in 2018, Jaylon flashed the playmaking potential that Dallas was counting on. Going into 2019, the pair of Smith and Leighton Vander Esch looked like one of the next great linebacker duos in the NFL.

Unfortunately, both players have declined since the early success. While Leighton’s issues have been more health-related, Jaylon Smith’s play has worsened and he’s now seen as one of the biggest liabilities on the roster for such a significant contract.

Some fans don’t get why people are down on Smith’s play. After all, he did lead the team in tackles the last two years and was even among the league leaders in that one statistic.

Jaylon’s issues are beyond the box score. His breakdowns and mental lapses in coverage are easy to see and his tackles, while many, are happening after opponents are well past the line of scrimmage. His actual effectiveness on the field has dropped significantly from 2018; one of the lower-graded starting linebackers in football.

Sure, Smith would be better if the defensive line was helping more and Dallas hadn’t stupidly hired Mike Nolan to be a coordinator in 2020. But where great players usually overcome the circumstances and still display their value, Jaylon has become a major contributor to the recent defensive meltdown.

Fans are especially hard on Jaylon because of his celebratory antics on the field and occasional comments that indicate he doesn’t see these flaws. And now that he’s switching to the #9 jersey, still attributed to Tony Romo in the hearts of Cowboys fans, Smith is under even greater scrutiny.

The irony here is that we always feared the Jaylon Smith pick wouldn’t work out, but never for the reasons that we’re currently seeing. We feared he might never play or, at best, be another Sean Lee whose greatness was clear but whose body just never let him show it consistently.

No, the issues now with Jaylon are ones we never saw coming. He’s not the elite player we were promised, despite being fully and consistently healthy, and that’s why he’s arguably the most reviled player currently on the Cowboys roster.

Hopefully, for his sake and ours, 2021 goes a long way to fix his broken relationship with Cowboys Nation. If Jaylon Smith can get back to being the player we saw a few years ago, most won’t care what number he’s wearing.

What do you think?

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Written by Jess Haynie

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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  1. The issue with Jaylon is that he isn’t completely healthy and never will be. He is unable to change direction as fast as he could or as fast as others for that matter because of the drop foot. Teams have figured that out and run plays to counter act his speed from side line to sideline. It’s like watching a DT move from left to right. He still has room grow. But I think he is overpaid now.

  2. Fools please he played behind the worst D line in history so i say give him the credit yall gave romo sorry ass with yall excuses every yr and vanderesh is lil sean lee but yall want to throw the blame on jalen.

  3. I would love it if they could get rid of his contract and as good as he looked in 2018, I’m not really too mad at the front office for extending him and I know the play around him hasn’t been very good but he looks horrible. I think the best thing to do is to start rotating him out as much as possible, couple that with better incoming talent on defense and hope he gets to playing better. As far as Smith leading in tackles, that means very little to me because he’s generally getting them after long gains and rarely makes any “impact” plays.

  4. J’s problem like many cowboys has been terrible coaching (Garrett, Linehan, Nolan) and injuries to defensive and offensive lines.
    His and b LVE’s play will improve in proportion to the line in front of them. If not they should be replaced.

  5. Pass coverage mechanics are horrible. Never turns to see the ball. Plays chase. Not knee related, fundamentally weak

  6. Jess why so harsh? Unfortunately your take misses the mark. As Celio accurately states Smith is not nor has he ever fully recovered from the devastating injury he sustained in his final college game. He also observes the obvious that you fail to acknowledge, after early success teams have adjusted and game planned against his strengths; first read reaction speed. This is one primary reason coach Nolan wanted to move him from the Mike spot and put him on the edge. After LVA went down with injury he was forced back into the middle. Jess you also make the false supposition that “ great players usually overcome the circumstances and still display their value ” , nothing can be further from the truth in the NFL. When the circumstances change the player’s career/play changes. Be it due to health, system fit, playing out of position, or lack of effective squad construction. Ray Lewis was able to flourish ONLY when he was protected by a dominant defensive line. There are countless examples of players who were discarded as afterthoughts who in a different environment, system flourish. Also you see the reverse as well. Not to mention the many players who’ve had roller coaster careers, up and down and up and down…. It’s been a miracle he’s played as well as he has. Now if you ask is he underperforming his salary? Yes, Jess you are correct. How about with all the dL additions, coaching changes, added competition at LB this year, let’s see how he and LVE perform. Btw…. If you followed the Fighting Irish the last couple of years, or watched the film you will see in Parsons a player of similar profile to Smith , an explosive big play making player, just don’t watch the Ohio St film. If you would see that the Buckeyes play calling took advantage of his aggressive and instinctive play. Something that Smith has been victimized in. It’s also easy to find fault. Inn2020 the whole Cowboys franchise had issues. That said moving into 2021, I hope moving smith to weak side LB will free him up so that he can again be a phenomenal asset to the team.

  7. Mickey Allen the only fool in here is you. Always some jackass that has to make everything about race!! Shut up fool..!!

  8. This article was submitted by a reporter with story deadline but had nothing significant to write. One of the worst say nothing articles ever.
    Really. Come on man you can do better or just stop as a best writer for the Cowboys.

  9. Get him and everyone other defensive player out of Mike Nolan’s defense and get him out of the middle, which is not his strength and then see what he can do. Way too early to write him off but this year is make it or break it. I trust Quinn to put him in position to succeed or to figure out he can’t play.

  10. I will reserve judgement on Jaylen until at least midway through this season. I want to see how he and LVE bounce back with a new DC and hopefully more capable help up front.

  11. Jaylon Smith celebrates jumping on a tackle 10 yards downfield like he went all badass over his opponent. He is a liability in coverage for stated reasons and from what some of the current coaches are saying is not putting in the work required for being a defensive captain. Some want to blame just the coaches but it’s plain to see he could do a lot better calling plays before the snap of the ball.

  12. Jaylon Smith is one of the bright spot in the team he tackles he doesn’t always make the plays because he tried to over compensate for other around him poor play. He was out of position last year to let lve play middle and he struggled mightly. You don’t have 160 tackles and can’t play. D-law struggled Aldon Smith woods Crawford I can go on and on. The system change hurt our team wrong time to make a change with no on field practice. Finally what did Romo win for people to think that’s his jersey.no playoffs no Superbowl just slot of heart break. People hold on to pass failure like that’s a good thing it’s been over 20 plus years let that go. Ball out Jalen and if they don’t want you Miami or Chicago will take you in a heart beat. And thank you for your character off the field

  13. Jaylon’s problem is that he is over hyped to make the play, so much so, that he forgets that there are other people on the field other than himself and the ball carrier!

  14. This article sounds like you don’t even pay attention to the schemes. Last season Nolan continued to have Jaylon on bad positioning game after game. The fact that he was 2nd in the league in tackles is even more impressive when you consider how much they had him out of place.
    The hate for Jaylon seems to be “the cool thing too do” on the internet mostly by people who get their opinion from someone else and really don’t pay attention. Sounds like one of them actually wrote this article tbh

  15. JSmith has never been healthy as a pro. He was unable to play his entire rookie year due to his knee, played only part of his second year, and has never been able to change direction quickly.

  16. You guys should understand that when a team plays poorly it makes the whole team look bad. At least he was tackling. What about the adjustments that was supposed to be made by the coaching staff. I lay most of this at their feet. But as a whole you have to factor in all that happened (pandemic, injuries to key players , and a defense that was horrible. I think with the great job that was done in the draft and all the corrections that are being made we will be alright. I think it will be a bounce back year for us. We got some talented pieces in this draft and most of them are going to contribute for the team this year. Jaylon will be alright this year because the talent around him will be better. Also he will be where he is supposed to be on the weak side and that is no indictment against him. Just him making it back from what he has endured is a testiment to his will. Considering all that he’s been hit with I think he has done well. Until we win another Super Bowl hadn’t anybody done enough. But with Capt D back in the saddle I like our chances. You guys give the team and the organization another chance before we go writing anybody off. We have some real hungry youngsters coming in and they are some ballers. We are going to be a lot better this year.

  17. Jaylon will be a force in this defense. Last year the Rams exposed our d-line. You got tackles and guards and centers blasting our linebackers 5 yards downfield. A better d-line will free up our linebackers.

  18. The problem is you can’t expect LBs to be dominant with no relevant DTs. If the offense lineman are at the 2nd level at the snap how would you expect them to dominate. LVE unfortunately issue is availability. But without consistent pressure on the DL LBs can’t play freely.

  19. Of you watch tape of Jayson Smith you see how to not cover……if you watch jabril cox you see good coverage by a linebacker

  20. Ive been a die hard cowboy fan for as long as i can remember. Jaylon smith is a great lb lets get that straight first. The injury he suffered in college has prevented him from performing to his highest potential. If u watched that game he was injured in it was bad. Now the whole j takeing romos number im fine with that tony is retired from football and makeing more money in the booth then any other announcer on tv. I always here the hate from cowboy fans and it makes me sick.

    #jaylon
    ,,, #Tony#7

  21. Honestly, this is the most well written and articulated article I have read in recent memory. I commend you for being direct, factually accurate and not perpetuating this blind optimism, endless excuse narrative. You clearly are a serious writer, with a backbone, who is focused on the truth. It’s a breath of fresh air. Well done.

  22. Jaylon is more of an edge containment type of player who you don’t want to see in space trying to cover a RB or TE, however if you put him behind an even decent Right or Left End you’ll watch him make countless plays in the back field. His strength is getting upfield but he needs someone who can take on block and get some type of penetration in front of him so he can shoot gaps and blitz the Quarterback. Jaylon still has a lot left in the tank and I think now that it’s not all on him to make plays you’ll see his over snaps decrease and his productivity increase as his role should be somewhat reduced which will allow him to concentrate on stopping the run and rushing the Quarterback.

  23. Moose, what article did you read? Who paid you to say that? You couldn’t be further from the truth and I’m disgusted you wasted our time with your obvious nose up the exit hole opinion.Stop,just stop. This was a horrible waste of time reading this and I question your ability to access players. How can you say Jaylon regressed as a player when just like someone else stated, the linebackers are only as good as their line, just like the offense. He played behind one of the weakest, worst defensive lines in history and the worst defense as a team, ever. Give the guy a chance with Quinn as our defensive coordinator and some better players up front and I garauntee he will be back, if not better than his old self. He was constantly trying to cover and stop the pass and run almost single handedly. When your Def. line is so bad it can’t stop an 80 year old woman running in rain boots, you have to over compensate for those things and yes your going to be out of position at times but regardless Jaylon is a great linebacker and will flourish in Quinn’s defensive scheme and you’ll be proven just how bad you are at accessing talent. Your so off it’s not even funny, I’m wondering if I could get paid writing the garbage I just read. I could write better in my sleep and access players without watching them better than you can obviously

  24. I don’t know why Jalen gets a bad rap, Sean Lee was hurt every year and never played a full season and everyone loved him.coach him up and he’ll be good,the worst player dallas has is Jerry jones!

  25. The hate for Jalen Smith is unreal how can you be the 2nd leading tackler in the league but regress as a player? As stated by others here your LB’s are only as good as the DL in front of them.

  26. I don’t care who you are or what position you play, if you have any sort of weakness at all the NFL will find it and take advantage of it. You have to be able to adjust to that or you will be out the league so quick it’ll make your head spin. Defensive and offensive coordinators get paid to find the other teams strengths and weakness and work out a game plan to take advantage of that. Position coaches get paid to find your weakness and if at all possible hep you make it a strength.
    Egos get in the way of all that stuff. But if you aren’t pretty damn sure of yourself you probably aren’t playing pro sports anyway.

  27. 9 is just a number! The man has been through enough without undue hate tossed on him. Is this his third or fourth coach in four years? He seems to enjoy his tough profession a bit much sometimes but so what? I hope he makes all the folks that like to bad mouth the man Superbowl fans once again. Go ahead Jalon, have the laugh and we will cheer with you!

  28. All of this bs about he not playing well get off it you can’t blame 1 guy for a season injuries and bad play calling. He played out of position and still was 3rd in tackles. The man is a beast and will always be one he has a never give up attitude and we need that on this team.

  29. I think that Dan Quinn will help out quite a bit. Last year was a disaster from stem to stern on the defensive side of the ball. Thus hard to judge. Also Jaylon had a nice 2019 season. Not great but nice.

  30. Some of You are making some really good comments while some are making some rude comments about Jaylon. Romo wasn’t an elite player himself but Dallas kept him until Dak came in. So if Quinn moves him and it works then I say go ahead and keep him.

  31. Just reflect back on the 2019 season against the then unbeaten New Orleans Saints Sean Lee out Vander Esch (Brain Boswell) out what happened to the Saints.
    Most must have missed the draft highlights on Vander esch (Brian Boswell) when a running back ran right up his leg and he had to turn and go get him.
    All I can say is I hope they can replace Vander esch (Brian Boswell) with this number one draft pick that we just got and see how things turn out.
    The chemistry is what it’s about.

  32. The linebacker position is similar to the RB position, if the defensive linemen don’t keep the offensive linemen off the linebackers then they won’t be successful unless they are Marvel Comic book heroes.

  33. I have been a die hard fan of Dallas for 40 plus years!! I think Jaylen will have bounce back year. Jaylen at least gave his and has always given his best effort every time he stepped his feet out on the field you can’t say that about everyone on that defense last year!! They’re going to be a much improved defense under Quinn!!

  34. Clay states Allen mentioned race in his comments. I read every comment on this thread and there was no mention of such. What was mentioned was subpar play by Romo, Lee and Vanderesch. I agree with the comment as it applies to all but Vanderesch. What Clay appears to have issue with is that all the players mentioned were white. Dallas does have a history of bashing black players and I’m telling you this as a non Cowboy “Jets loving” fan. I’m not emotionally attached so I think my view is unobstructed by this. Call it what it is Jerry’s camp is probably the least concerned about societal issues as compared to other organizations. That is not to say that the others are much better. Since we’re talking players and abilities why doesn’t Kaepernick have a job. His stats were better than his replacement?

  35. Not his fault. The whole defense sucked. The schemes where horrible. How many times guys were running free in the secondary and blown assignments? Dallas couldn’t get any pressure. McCarthy should have been fired for bringing in that DC. Then the lack of adjustments on offense was horrible.

  36. The one thing I do appreciate most about Jaylon Smith is that he is durable and reliable he doesn’t miss games,with Dan Quinn as def coordinator,Jaylon and Layton vanderish,will only get better.

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