596 days. That’s how long Jaylon Smith had been waiting to get back on a football field and play a competitive game. Along the way there were plenty of doubters that he would ever return from the gruesome injury to the knee suffered in the Fiesta Bowl two college seasons ago. One of the people who never doubted his return was Jaylon Smith.
"Not one moment," [Smith] said. "From the start, it's a been a long journey. Like I've told all of you guys, my clear-eye view, a focused vision, determined belief, earned dreams, it's got me here today and it's something where I really appreciate the Jones [family] and everybody with the Cowboys organization for believing in me. It's just the beginning. It's a great feeling."
Smith played 12 plays and was credited with one tackle.
There's nothing else I can say except... congratulations, @TheJaylonSmith... you've worked hard and deserve this. #SWIPE! #ClearEyeView pic.twitter.com/MtJUvrSQia— ✭ DCBlueStar ✭ (@DCBlueStar) August 19, 2017
During his time on the field he had eight plays where he dropped back into coverage, and four plays where he attacked the run.
On play 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 and 12 Smith dropped into coverage but the play didn’t really involve him. He looked pretty good in getting to his drop zones. His straight line speed and knowledge of where he should be looked fine. He’ll probably become more fluid in this area, his starts and stops are a little mechanical at this point, but he looked fine.
On play 6, he made the tackle shown above. He dropped into coverage in the middle of the field, the receiver came on a crossing route underneath and Smith saw it, and was able to close quickly and make the stop.
On play 4, Smith recognized a run, moved towards the line but was blocked by an offensive linemen as the running back cut the play in the other direction because of no room to run. On play 10 he attacked the run, filled the gap and stood up a blocker at the line, but the play was stopped in the backfield by other Cowboys defenders.
Play 8 and 9 are the ones everyone remember beside the tackle he made. On play 8 he fired into the gap on a run play but the running back shifted a little in the other direction and Smith was unable to breakdown and make a quick change of direction. This was noted as his problem area in camp, quick lateral movements, and it is something that will need to be worked on. After so much time off his angles to the ball carrier are probably rusty and that can be fixed. If his drop foot doesn’t allow him to make as quick of lateral movements as he was used to in the past, he’ll need to make that adjustment as he learns his limitations through repetition. Play 9 was another play where he shot a gap but appeared to be just a little out of position. But a review of the tape seems to show an offensive lineman gave him a little shove just as he was heading to where the ball carrier was, that might have been just enough to move him off the spot. His angle did look a little off, but it looked like he was also slightly moved out of the play by a blocker.
Overall, he looked good for a player who has been away from the game as long as he has, and is playing with a brace for drop foot. As has been noted before, when he needs to use his straight line speed he looks fine, it’s the quick start/stops and lateral movement that still has a ways to go. He didn’t seem lost and his instincts about diagnosing pass or run were good, he looked sharp in that area. His awareness of his angles probably are a little rusty, and he’s still learning to work with the limitations his injury is still giving him, something that might take a little time.
The Cowboys plan to start increasing his reps, and that is the only thing that they can do to truly help him get back to where he was, or at least close to it. Stephen Jones thinks he’s at 80 or 90%, but my guess was he looked more like 75% or so.
The key thing, though, is he looked like a legit NFL football player out there. He already looked better than a bunch of guys in this league. Now that he’s got the initial debut out of the way, it’s all about improving for Smith.
"Do my job," he said. "Have a sense of urgency of getting lined up, going over my keys, and playing football."