Last year, there was excitement among the Cowboys faithful when it was revealed that Jaylon Smith would move to the WILL linebacker and Leighton Vander Esch would take over as the MIKE. The thought was that Smith is best when attacking the line of scrimmage and that he could be deployed as a fifth pass-rusher on certain play-calls. His ability to rush the passer had shown itself previously. It seemed like this move would be playing to his skill-set.
Fast forward to now and we know that Smith’s 2020 season was subpar. He wasn’t alone in that, much of the defense failed in 2020 and some of that is due to the coaching and change of scheme which just seemed to leave the players confused and thinking instead of playing. It got better by the time the season was coming to a close, but not enough to save Mike Nolan’s job.
Now Dan Quinn will be tasked in running the defense. And while his scheme is not exactly like the one run previously in Dallas before Nolan arrived, there are some similarities. The Cowboys ran a lot of single-high safety and Cover 3 in the waning years of the Rod Marinelli era.
If we think back to 2018, when Jaylon Smith was the MIKE in that defense, he had a tremendous year. So much so that fans, and the organization, thought that linebacker was sewn up for a long time to come with Smith and LVE. 2019 didn’t go quite as well, but LVE missed time that year and Smith did end up with okay numbers and a decent PFF grade, even though it was a step down from 2018.
So would moving Smith back to the MIKE make sense in 2021? Bucky Brooks seems to think so.
What is Jaylon Smith’s role?
The Cowboys’ leading tackler is a polarizing figure based on his inconsistent game but he could play a major role in Dan Quinn’s scheme. The one-time Pro Bowler has played multiple positions but he is at his best when playing in the middle. Smith’s high IQ, strong communication ability, and skills make him a better fit at MIKE in the Cowboys’ revamped scheme.
As the designated monster in the middle, he only needs to control the tackle-to-tackle box as a run defender and operate between the hashes, particularly in a spot drop defense with some pattern-match principles. Smith thrived in this role in 2018 in a similar scheme employed by Kris Richard/Marinelli, and a reprisal could bring out the best in the veteran.
That said, Smith must prove that he wants to play at an all-star level and exhibit it in his play and preparation. From his energy, effort and physicality to his impact production, the veteran linebacker needs to perform at a high level for the Cowboys’ defense to improve. Quinn will put him in a position to succeed as a middle linebacker but Smith has to take advantage of his opportunities or take a seat on the bench.
This is an interesting take. 2020 was absolutely the worst year for both Smith and Vander Esch. They played better when they were in different positions in 2018-19, with 2018 being an outstanding year for both.
Intuitively it seemed to make sense that Smith would be better out in space and the LVE, with his bigger size, would be better in the middle. Even though they didn’t always line up in their designated positions in Nolan’s hybrid defense, it still didn’t work out well for either.
Maybe a change back to the old positions, with the coming change back to a similar scheme to pre-Nolan days, will unlock their skills once again.