Dallas Cowboys Film Room: Jaylon Smith

Jun 13, 2017; Frisco, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) during minicamp at The Star at Cowboys World Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 13, 2017; Frisco, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) during minicamp at The Star at Cowboys World Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys might have the most balanced offense in the NFL, and the defense could come along if young players step up — including Jaylon Smith.

If Jaylon Smith never suffered a knee injury that a torn ACL, LCL, and nerve damage, he could have been a top-10 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Instead, the Dallas Cowboys took a mini-gamble on the former Notre Dame star, drafting Smith with the 34th overall pick. It’s anybody’s guess as to when (or even if) Smith is able to play a snap of professional football, let alone just how effective he will be.

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But judging by his film at Notre Dame, if he’s even 70 percent of the player he was in college, Smith could be one of the Cowboys’ most important players.

Special prospects stand out immediately when you turn on their film. Khalil Mack, Michael Thomas, and Marcus Mariota are examples of prospects who looked like future stars from the moment I studied them. Smith stands out in the same way.

It’s hard to feel confident about projecting players who have suffered career-threatening injuries, but if there’s one type of player worth betting on, it’s the player with superior instincts. Smith does an exceptional job of reading running plays and of reading the quarterback both as a spy and in zone coverage.


Some of his plays against the run are more hard-nosed than this and occur closer to the line of scrimmage, but for the most part, Smith is the type of linebacker who will make most of his plays using his range as opposed to shooting gaps. Smith certainly doesn’t play soft, but he’s at his best when he’s able to use his range and instincts at the second level of the defense. Most of Smith’s plays against the run are clean-up tackles, but the example below against Clemson highlights the fact that he can be more of a “thumper” when needed.


I’ve seen criticisms of Smith as a tackler, but I vehemently disagree with the notion that he has any weaknesses in this regard. In fact, Smith has been one of my favorite prospects to watch, simply because he’s so assured as a tackler.

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The mistakes that he makes in this regard will come against more agile running backs, such as Clemson’s Wayne Gallman, when he’s in pursuit in the opposing backfield. As an open-field tackler and sideline-to-sideline defender, Smith is as safe as they come.

A great example of Smith’s paradoxical ability to be violent and safe at the same time comes in his film against Texas. Notre Dame frequently deployed their best defensive player (apologies to Sheldon Day) as a spy against Texas’s Tyrone Swoopes, who was one of the most dangerous running quarterbacks in the country. The result? GIFs to die for.


Now that’s what I call a hit.

It didn’t just stop there either, because Notre Dame tried to counteract Swoopes’s mobility by lining Smith up as a defensive end. Smith dropped back into a traditional spy role, and as you would expect, the ensuing outcome wasn’t a positive one for the Longhorns. Two third-down conversion attempts and two easy stuffs for the Notre Dame defense. For another example of a similar play, go to the 3:50 mark of this video.


Smith’s run defense and ability to account for the quarterback are important parts of his game, but the best way to get an appreciation for him as an elite college prospect is to examine his work in coverage. There’s a reason why he drew comparisons to Kansas City Chiefs long-timer star linebacker Derrick Johnson, who is one of the best coverage linebackers (and most well-rounded defensive players) of this generation.

The following play is another example of Smith lining up close to the line of scrimmage before dropping deeper and making a tackle in pass defense. He has to make this tackle, too, otherwise it’s a first down that keeps USC away from their own end zone, letting some of the pressure off of the offense. These are the kind of “gimme” plays that Smith doesn’t leave on the table, whether it’s against a quarterback scrambling or a running back trying to make something happen after the catch.


There are several examples of these kinds of plays in that USC game, which was essentially a clinic from Smith on how to fly all over the field as a linebacker. In that same contest, Smith also showed that he can keep up with a wide receiver further down the field (watch the right sideline). Would he have won in a foot-race to the end zone? Absolutely not. But he held his own against a wide receiver for as long as he needed to.


Everything about Smith’s story so far is both gut-wrenching and inspiring, and I hope everyone is rooting for him to be healthy and establish himself as a top talent in the NFL. But what adds an extra amount of sting to it is that Smith wasn’t an aggressive or unsafe player in college. He always pulled up when a quarterback was scrambling or after they threw the ball the way in the pocket, and his game as a linebacker was mostly based on smarts, technique, and finesse.

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Any one play in football can lead to a devastating injury, and injuries are rarely the fault of anyone. I understand that. That said, it still hurts to see that Smith ended up on the wrong side of one of those plays.

It may be irresponsible of me to be optimistic and to expect big things from Smith, but I can’t help but give him the benefit of the doubt in his comeback story. You see, Smith’s ability to make an impact in college was predicated on sound tackling, reading running plays, and knowing when to be aggressive and when to sit back and play “clean-up”. His work in coverage was even more impressive than his work against the run, but neither side of his game was based around pure explosiveness and athleticism.

Smith was a great athlete in college, no doubt, but the fact that he never had to rely on his athleticism bodes well for him if his knee injury has sapped a significant amount of his athletic chops.

So far in OTAs and offseason workouts, Smith has drawn praise for his work in drills, which seems to indicate that we should be able to see him on the field this season. Again, it’s just impossible to make any predictions on what he can do, but Smith was an excellent linebacker prospect in college. More importantly, he was an excellent prospect for reasons that go beyond workout numbers or statistics. Smith succeeded in several different ways at the linebacker position for Notre Dame and showed enough versatility to line up in other spots, fulfilling whatever responsibilities that week’s gameplan called for.

The Cowboys already have one of the league’s best linebackers in Sean Lee, who had a whopping 145 tackles in 2016. Smith and Lee share similarities, in the sense that both are rangy linebackers who can excel in coverage, rack up tackles, and can still make their presence felt as blitzers or as run defenders near the line of scrimmage.

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If Smith is healthy, I have high hopes for him as a football player, because any hype that you’ve heard about him is indeed real. He was a legitimately elite prospect in college, and even if some of the explosiveness has waned, the other traits that are evident on film won’t dissipate. If anything, they could even become more pronounced, as Smith will come to rely on his mental processing and ingrained technique and awareness.