When the Dallas Cowboys drafted Jaylon Smith with the 34th pick in 2016, they had grand visions for what he could mean to their defense. This was based on the expectation that he would be able to return to full health after suffering a devastating knee injury for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in their bowl game his junior year. The knee injury caused damage to a nerve in his leg which jeopardized his ability to play football.
He spent the 2016 season on the Non-Football Injury list, but returned to the team in 2017, playing with an “AFO” brace on his left foot in order to correct the “drop foot” condition he dealt with as a result to the damage in the nerve. The plan was for him to handle spot duty as a rotational player in 2017 behind starter Anthony Hitchens at the Mike linebacker spot. He worked his way back to health and got his legs under him, both literally and figuratively.
But when Hitchens suffered a knee injury in the preseason which caused him to miss the first four games, and Sean Lee missed the Cowboys’ Week 4 and 5 games with an injury of his own, Smith was thrust into a full-time workload. On Wednesday at the NFL Combine, Cowboy head coach Jason Garrett spoke about Smith’s 2017 season.
“He probably played more than we wanted him to play at the outset of the season,” Garrett said. “When Hitch was hurt and then Sean was hurt, he had to play a lot of snaps. He played his best football when his snaps were more limited and situations he was most comfortable, playing next to those guys. You got to remember that he’s a rookie and he’s coming off an injury. There are a lot of factors that went into his performance this year. But there’s no doubts in our minds that he got better as it went on and he played best when we had him in that environment where he was most comfortable.”
The most notable piece of Garrett’s comments came when he spoke about Smith’s future with the team, after being asked whether Smith would be ready for a full workload should Hitchens depart in free agency, or if a position switch to SAM might be in the cards should Hitchens return.
“We’re really excited about him as a player,” Garrett said. “Again, his development has been significant. I think physically he will get better and better as we go. And certainly, he will learn from his experiences. He does have versatility. He can play any of the spots. You want to make sure you give him a chance to succeed.” Then he elaborated, “The SAM in our defense is an important spot but there is so much nickel defense being played in the NFL. Often times you only have two linebackers out on the field, so you want to give him more than just that role. He might be a SAM in base but you want to make sure he has a role when we’re playing our two linebacker defense as well.”
While some interpreted this statement as an indication the team was planning to move Smith to the SAM in base packages no matter what, the context of the question and the structure of the answer likely mean there may not be as much to the position switch idea.
However, should the team retain Anthony Hitchens, it would need a way to put its best three linebackers on the field in the 20-30 percent of defensive snaps when it plays its base 4-3 defense. What would that position switch mean for Jaylon?
Time in coverage on tight ends
For the last three seasons the Cowboys have used Byron Jones as a tight end eraser. In 2017 they became so enamored with him in that role that they used him as a box player even on running downs in order to keep him in position to cover those tight ends. With multiple reports early in the offseason that the team intends to move Jones back to corner, the team will need someone else to cover the matchup nightmares — Zach Ertz, Evan Engram, and Jordan Reed — their NFC East rivals can bring to the table.
This is where Smith excelled at in college, possessing a rare combination of size and athleticism that uniquely positions him to stick with tight ends in the middle of the field.
By lining up at the Sam position, he can be aligned directly over tight ends, positioned to be physical with them at the line of scrimmage, and then turn and run with them across the field or up the seam.
Opportunity to rush the passer
As a Sam linebacker, Smith would often be lined up at the line of scrimmage on the edge of the defensive line. As such, he would be in a natural position to blitz off the edge. With his size and explosiveness, he has had success in these areas both in college and the NFL. If the Cowboys’ defensive coaches can get Smith one-on-one versus a tight end in pass protection, they’ll have a matchup they feel great about, and can generate pressure on the quarterback in creative ways.