Jaylon Smith has been the source of much debate as of late. It seems as if the swap of a certain number has bothered some, and intrigued many. Many fans feel the number nine should not be donned again since the retirement of Cowboys great Tony Romo. With Smith back in the spotlight, it brings to the forefront why there are differing feelings about the player. Some fans feel the level of play shown does not warrant the level of flashiness Jaylon Smith shows on and off the field. In 2021, the narrative could change.
With the addition of Dan Quinn, things could turn around as he brings a return to a familiar scheme for many of the returning Cowboys defenders. A scheme in which the likes of Demarcus Lawrence and Smith himself have shown comfort and flashes of success within. Couple that with the fact that Quinn has brought in the likes of Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee to help implement and act as liaisons for this 2021 defensive squad, there is reason to be optimistic about this unit moving forward.
Last year’s changes proved to be a struggle for what seemed to be every player on the defensive side of the ball, and that reflected in Smith’s 2020 PFF grade which was a lowly 54.2. However, it’s fair to look back at 2019 when you want to view what 2021 has the potential to look like. In a system he was comfortable in, he was able to notch a respectable PFF grade of 70.2 while also being second in the NFL in solo tackles at 108, and finishing eighth in the league in forced fumbles with two. Not even factoring in Smith’s best season as a pro in 2018 where he finished with an impressive 84.0 PFF grade, there are many factors to feel confident that he can get back to a quality level of play.
You can’t understate what the Cowboys looked to achieve in the draft and how it was done with the potential impact for Jaylon Smith and the rest of the linebacker unit in mind. Will McClay and staff prioritized size/speed and they wanted it at all levels. The defensive line was no exception to that, as the Cowboys were able to add Osa Odighizuwa, Chauncey Golston, and Quinton Bohanna to the mix. The idea was to add size across the defensive line, and specifically in the middle, with the intention of eating up space, creating pressure up the middle, and most importantly taking on blocks in the run game. That would allow the linebackers to run freely at the second level and not be engulfed by offensive linemen, allowing them to read and react in a much cleaner, quicker fashion. Doing so will allow for the Cowboys woeful defense to improve against the run where they were gashed at an embarrassing rate all of last season.
Jaylon Smith has talent and there is no denying that he has the potential to excel once again. At one time many believe the future of this team’s linebacking group was on the shoulders of Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. That does not mean there still isn’t a future for both in Dallas, it just means there is work to do for both to ensure that reality. For Smith specifically, there was a decline from one year to another and the fact of the matter is it was sharp. So much so that it made you wonder why did he look like a completely different player in such a short span of time.
The numbers are there as he has often lead some statistical categories for this team consistently. However, the tape tells a different story. The tape will show you a player that looked out of place and unsure at times. It may even show you a lack of effort, which despite what former Cowboys player Xavier Woods would tell you, is inexcusable. However, many of these things can be attributed to not being put in a position to succeed by a prior coordinator which clearly was a bad scheme fit. It may be the lesser talent around him as injuries piled up, or even his own mental second guessing which hampers his athletic ability. What ever it was, there was something that wasn’t quite right about Jaylon Smith last season.
With the addition of some key pieces around him, either from players getting healthy or new members to the team, coupled with an internal motivation as he surely understands what is being said about him, and an implementation of a scheme that he once thrived in, plus an entire somewhat normal off-season to prepare, it is not outrageous for there to be optimism for Jaylon Smith this season. The much-to-prove linebacker has already played at a high level once before, and he is not short on talent, so it is not impossible that he bounces back. Quinn and his staff’s goal will be to put him in position to win, while allowing his talent to shine and play loosely. He can rush the passer, and will need to fill the correct holes in the run game, all while allowing himself to be a talent that once had him viewed as a first-round lock. The Cowboys are looking to find a way to maximize his ability.
Some fans may not like his number choice, or his bravado after a play while losing, but it is in the team’s best interest for Jaylon Smith to be at his best this upcoming season, and it’s entirely possible he could be.