In the 2016 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys took a shot in the second round for an athletic linebacker coming off a severe knee injury. The Cowboys struck gold as Jaylon Smith is a young superstar with a lot of upsides. Smith is a perfect fit in the Cowboys scheme. With, Leighton Vander Esch and a quicker defense, Smith fit alongside that squad. With the Cowboys running a 3-3-5 or 4-2 about 80% of the time, Smith’s speed is meaningful.
Despite a knee injury in college and lacking size at the position, Smith must be given an extension. The Cowboys projected cap space is currently $23 million. As it is well known, Dak Prescott is rumored to want $40 million annually while star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, is holding out for a new deal of his own. Elliott is looking for a contract similar to that of New York Jets Le’ Veon Bell. Even starting wide receiver, Amari Cooper is on deck for an extension.
Although these three are the main playmakers, Smith is a must-have for the up-and-coming Dallas defense. Smith would love to stay with the Cowboys for life. With that being said, he could fetch anywhere between $10-$15 million a year. Let’s dive into why Smith deserves a raise and an extension.
According to Pro Football Focus, Smith defended the pass well at 14th in coverage rankings for all linebackers. Vander Esch snuck in at 13th overall. Smith completed the 2018 season with a 79.8 grade. Smith has this grade due to his athletic built. He’s been seen with great sideline to sideline speed, quick reactions, and being a versatile three-down backer.
The Cowboys are set in a Cover 1 scheme against the Carolina Panthers’ Spread Right Closed formation. Originally, Smith is the weak side linebacker lining up across from Christian McCaffrey. He is the second defender on the left side of the field (cornerback is first). He begins watching McCaffrey and notices him immediately chip block before leaking out.
At the same time, the cornerback defending the lone receiver is out of position. The Cowboys are versatile enough to play Banjo coverage. This usually comes into play against a bunch or trips formation. The defenders line up and the inside defender guards the inside route, the one lined up head on takes on their man, and the outside leverage defender takes on the outside route.
Smith switches the coverage so he can guard the receiver. This turns a wide-open receiver back to being covered. Smith even sticks to his hip when the receiver cuts up the field too.
Smith starts off the play with a hook curl zone in the middle of the field. His zone is set to be filled as he has two receivers lined up on his side of the field. Smith begins the play covering the receivers running level routes. He takes on the smaller dig route and realizes no other receivers are coming back his way. We see in the next zone that he’s both capable and smart to alter his zone. He still has a hook curl zone, but he drops it down lower while shifting it to the left. Smith and the defense began to collapse the zone to shut down the heavy loaded left side.
By the end, Smith allows a short pass where he can crash upon and end the play. Not only is he a strong coverage player, but he can also read plays tremendously.
Smith’s ability to keep his eyes in the backfield as well as stay in a superb position makes him dangerous. It makes it tough for quarterbacks to throw him off as well as scramble for extra yards. For example, we will look at how he shuts down Cam Newton and Russell Wilson from making a big play.
In this clip, the Cowboys are in a Cover 2 scheme. Smith begins the play in a hook curl zone. At first, he watches where the two receivers run their routes. He also notices that McCaffrey is running straight to the flat where the corner is located. With a 3-on-3 matchup, Smith glances to the backfield and realizes the pocket disappeared.
Newton begins to roll right and sees green grass in front of him. But, that vision cone shows Smith crashing down, forcing Newton to run right into him for no gain.
In this clip, Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks are in a trips left formation. The Cowboys are back in a Cover 1. Smith is manned up against the running back. However, the running back is pass blocking. Smith then flips his man coverage to a QB spy. With Wilson scrambling left, he decides to take the banana angle. He follows the near hip and tracks Wilson down in a semi-circle or banana shape.
Not only is he a versatile linebacker with great vision, but he can also show his sideline speed and great angles.
Right off the bat, Smith is lined up in a four-technique or head-on with the left guard. He is capable to have leverage on the running back if he releases or shut downs the A-gap.
The running back releases to a checkdown route. Smith is at least 10 yards away from the running back when Wilson releases the ball. Within two seconds, he comes down and stops the play with a minimal gain.
Smith’s 4.44 40-yard dash allows him to fly across the field before some corners and safeties.
Smith starts 12 yards off the line of scrimmage. He also lines up at the hash marks with a bunch left formation near the numbers. Drew Brees throws a screen to Michael Thomas. Thomas makes the catch and within seconds Smith reaches top speed. He’s not a superb block shedder, but he slips through the stock-blocking receivers and makes the tackle. Smith’s ability to make a play on the other side of the field is something the Cowboys cannot overlook when they are possibly renewing a contract for Smith.
Besides all these great qualities, Smith defended his way up to the seventh-highest pass-rushing grade. An 84.8 grade placed Smith 3.7 points away from the frightening Bobby Wagner.
Once again, with $22 million in cap space currently, a raise to $10-$15 million will be perfect for Smith. A four-year deal will keep Smith and Vander Esch together during their young career. By that time, they will both reach their prime and the big money can come. As of now, Smith is a necessary extension the Cowboys need to do sooner than later.
Nick Zeller-Singh is a writer for the Pro Football Network covering the PFN Film Room. You can follow him @zickster21 on Twitter.