Linebacker Jaylon Smith has been a massive asset for the Dallas Cowboys but he can become an undeniable star as Mike Nolan takes over the defense.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his son, Stephen Jones, knew they were taking a risk when they selected linebacker Jaylon Smith in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. The Notre Dame product was a phenomenal prospect but a horrific knee injury in his final college game put his football future in jeopardy. But still, the Cowboys bet on the talent.
Though he had to sit out during his rookie season, he’s played in all 16 games in each of the last three seasons. And he’s repaid Dallas tenfold for taking a gamble on him. Smith has 344 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and an interception over his three seasons, which includes 38 starts and starting every game in both 2018 and 2019.
Smith was locked up to a long-term extension prior to last season and deservedly so. He has clearly proven he’s a high-end NFL linebacker. Any questions about the injury robbing him of his physical ability have been quelled. But as he approaches the 2020 season as a 25-year-old, the Cowboys linebacker has the opportunity to elevate himself even further.
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As defensive coordinator Mike Nolan takes over amidst a coaching staff overhaul, there is talk, per Calvin Watkins of the Dallas Morning-News (via Pro Football Talk), that Smith could potentially move to weakside linebacker rather than playing middle linebacker, which is where he’s lined up over the past two years.
When you look at Smith’s performance over the past three years, he’s been a complete player at the position. But he’s at his best when he can be a versatile piece that is often used as a blitzer to rush the passer.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he graded out at 84.0 or higher in his first two seasons but dipped down to 68.3 on pass-rush snaps in 2019. That’s largely due to lack of opportunity under Rod Marinelli at the middle linebacker spot.
With Nolan and a possible move to the weakside, though, Smith could be utilized much more effectively to showcase his versatility. He has the ability to drop into coverage, rush the passer when blitzing and defend the run at a high level. Nolan could put him in a place where he can do all of that with a move from the middle linebacker spot.
Of course, without minicamps and offseason workouts, we don’t know what changes will totally be made. Having said that, the writing is on the wall that some big changes are coming with Nolan taking over the defense. And if one of those is moving Smith to the weak side and Leighton Vander Esch — hopefully healthy — moving to the middle, then the Cowboys and Jaylon Smith will both benefit. And the player will likely start to get mentioned as a superstar at the position.