Jaylon Smith was released by the Dallas Cowboys on Tuesday, and everyone immediately wondered -- can this dude still play? The former second-round pick is only 26 years old and was playing on the third season of the five-year, $63.75 million deal he signed with the Cowboys in 2019.
Something must be up, right? Teams don't just cut starting linebackers four games into the season. In fairness to the uniqueness of this situation, the Cowboys have heavily invested in the position lately. Not only did they pick Micah Parsons in Round 1, but they also grabbed Jabril Cox in Round 4.
After watching Smith's film, there's good news and there's bad news.
The Bad News
Let's start with the bad news. Whenever I'm presented with a good news, bad news proposition, I want the bad first. Get it out of the way. And I'll be blunt -- Smith can't really run anymore. Well, what I mean by that is, he's not anywhere close to the super-explosive defender he was at Notre Dame pre-injury. Or the straight-line burner he was early in his Cowboys career post-rehab.
Because of that lost step, Smith couldn't get over the top of the lead blocker and was driven essentially out of the play. Also, did you notice a slight hitch in his gait at the end of the play? I did.
If you're thinking, "That's just one play!" I turn to Drake for my response: OK. Alright. That's fine. OK.
Believe me, there are others.
On this run play against Carolina, Smith actually fired his gun in a hurry. (Scouting term!) But he was a half-step behind Panthers center Matt Paradis climbing to the second level, which meant Smith got walled off and then removed from the play completely when the tight end got to the second level to secure the combo block. In 2018, Smith at least beats the center outside.
Smith actually looked decently explosive on that play, but sustaining speed is also a problem.
Here's the same fullback from the first play, former college tight end Giovanni Ricci, running a shallow cross with Smith in coverage Sunday. What do you see?
Not brutal coverage, but the speed is clearly sapped. It looks nothing like the twitch and speed he showcased on this famous hit on fourth down against Deshaun Watson back in 2018.
Fortunately for Smith, he's only seen 10 targets in his coverage area through four weeks. And he does understand his assignments. Beyond what his athletic limitations stop him from doing, he's typically in the right place within the scheme. Which leads me to...
The Good News
Because of his labored movements on the field and years of experience, Smith has become a very cerebral player. He reads play designs rapidly, which allows him to "play faster" than his actual speed. Watch this splash play on a tight end screen against Carolina. Smith sunk in coverage, recognized the linemen getting out before anyone else, and delivered the big hit.
He's thinking fast, that's for sure. That's why he's still serviceable.
Also, Smith hasn't lost one ounce of energy. He's full throttle from whistle to whistle. Coaches will -- justifiably -- love that. And hustle is valuable.
Watch how much of it went into this pressure of Jalen Hurts in his own end zone in Week 3. Had Smith simply gone through the motions, Hurts may have been able to turn the corner.
While clearly not a one-on-one victory for the blitzing linebacker, Smith helped make this play a positive one for the Dallas defense. He has two quarterback pressures on 10 pass-rushing snaps -- that play being one of them -- and both were of that variety, with the quarterback holding the ball and rolling out of the pocket with Smith in pursuit.
Smith is a smart player who just doesn't have the ace in hole -- his speed -- anymore. If Smith was going to be successful in the NFL -- and he was in his first two seasons -- it was always going to be due to him asserting himself as a classic "run and chase" linebacker. He wasn't a block-defeating master in college, nor was he super smooth in coverage. He could just absolutely fly.
He'd be an upgrade for a somewhat smaller collection of teams, but I don't expect him to have an abundance of suitors on the open market.