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.