Jaylon Smith’s career nearly ended before he even stepped foot on an NFL field.
The 2016 Fiesta Bowl featured two top-shelf college programs, Notre Dame and Ohio State. You would think the headlines of such a contest would be of excellence on the gridiron but in the first quarter that would all change. Smith would suffer a gruesome knee injury, tearing both his ACL and MCL. The timing couldn’t have been worse considering the NFL Draft was just three months away, and the Irish star was looked at as a potential top 10 pick. Many thought his stock would plummet tremendously, but the Dallas Cowboys had a different view in mind so to speak.
On January 7th Smith would have successful surgery to repair both ligaments in his knee. Just four days later, he announced he would forego his senior year and enter the NFL Draft, and the long road to recovery began.
Surprisingly, just six weeks post surgery, Smith was already squatting 500 pounds, truly an amazing accomplishment considering his physical status. By late April, he was already doing field work as he worked his body back into peak condition. When you take into account the seriousness of his injury just three months prior, it was mind-blowing to see him dropping into coverage and swatting a tackling dummy just before the NFL Draft.
Noticeably, he was wearing an Ankle-Foot Orthosis (AFO) device. The nerve damage in his knee caused a condition called drop foot. The brace provided stabilization to the ankle, foot, and knee for Smith and his workout videos began to generate buzz across the NFL landscape.
After taking All-Pro Running Back Ezekiel Elliott with the 4th overall pick, the Cowboys took what many deemed an unnecessary gamble with the 34th pick in round two. Even with the doubts flowing rapidly, they decided Smith was worth the risk and made him a Dallas Cowboy. Now that his pro football home had been determined it was time to get to work.
It would be a long shot for Smith to see the field as a rookie, and he wouldn’t risk further damage rushing back too quickly. Instead, he spent the season rehabbing and getting acclimated to the Cowboys defensive philosophy, at least as much as he could without actually being on the field of battle. He could be seen on the sidelines cheering his football brothers on weekly as they went 13-3 and won the NFC East, but as we all know, players want to play, and there’s no doubt that Smith was itching to make his presence known.
After a year and a half of rehab, and high expectations just from his workout videos alone, Jaylon Smith made his long-awaited NFL debut week one of 2017 against the Giants. It was clear he wasn’t quite back to the player that was so highly praised coming out of college, but you could see the flashes. He finished with 81 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 passes defended and 1 sack. More than solid for your first year on the field after ACL and MCL tears.
For years, the Cowboys defense was looked at as the teams weakest unit, but in 2018 that all changed, in large part because of the play of Smith. He would catapult his name into the conversation of the elite linebackers in all of football with his performance in year two. 121 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 4 passes defended and 4 sacks. This would silence any and all doubters who questioned rather he would ever reach his ceiling, and it also got him named PFF’s (Pro Football Focus) Breakout Player of the Year. Also, following the lead of their new defensive star, the Cowboys finished 5th against the run, 7th in fewest points allowed, 7th in total defense and a solid 13th against the pass. I guess it’s safe to say if you follow the lead of Jaylon Smith good things will come.
The biggest takeaway from last season in regards to Jaylon Smith was just how unlimited he looked movement wise. No hesitation, no timid motions at all when you watch his film. He shot through gaps like a Cheetah hunting an Antelope, to use a National Geographic analogy. We are seeing exactly why the Cowboys turned in his draft card in 2016, and they are reaping the benefits tremendously.
Now, as the 2019 season approaches look for an All-Pro level season from Smith. He’s improved every year he’s been on the field and there’s no sign of that stopping in the near future. Plus, he has two things most middle linebackers don’t have, an All-Pro on each side of him with teammates Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee, making life that much easier for him. Limitations and doubts have been cast aside and now look for Jaylon Smith to raise his game to another level. The “Clear Eye View” is in full swing.