Dallas Cowboys: What does Jaylon Smith need to be successful again?

Jaylon Smith #54 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Jaylon Smith #54 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images) /

When the Dallas Cowboys 2020 season ended, Jaylon Smith had one thing to say to his detractors: “watch the film.” Last season was a disappointment across the board for the Dallas Cowboys, but aside from Dak Prescott’s injury, nothing was more disappointing than the play of Jaylon Smith.

Smith, the former Notre Dame star linebacker, was expected to be a cornerstone piece on the Dallas Cowboys defense. He was supposed to thrive in Mike Nolan’s new scheme and he was supposed to shine in his new role as the starting WILL.

As we all know, things didn’t go down as planned. Mike Nolan is gone and along with him his defense. You see, the Dallas Cowboys, the fans, and the media have watched the film. And what we all saw was nothing short of terrible. And Jaylon Smith was no exception.

What can be done to make Jaylon Smith a successful player for the Dallas Cowboys again?

The stats can be deceiving. Jaylon’s 154 tackles were good enough for 2nd in the NFL last year, but it’s how the tackles transpired that’s cause for concern. All too often they were made 4-5 yards down field and not actual stops in the gap. They were negative plays that were graded as such, explaining why Pro Football Focus give him a 54.2 grade (45th amongst LBs in the NFL).

Yet, the Dallas Cowboys have apparently determined Jaylon’s coming back. He’s being given another chance in the system he once shined in. New coordinator Dan Quinn will reintroduce some old schemes and concepts that should simplify things for Jaylon and the linemen in front of him. With any luck, we may get to see that star linebacker from 2018. The one who became the comeback story of the year and the one that led way to that $64 million contract extension.

What can be done to set Jaylon Smith up to succeed in 2021?

It all starts with the blocking in front of him. Far too often offensive linemen ran free to the second level of the defense. Dallas’s DT’s were routinely unable to execute their assignments and that left the linebackers (Jaylon, Lee, Vander Esch) exposed. There’s a reason all three of Dallas’ LBs had horrific seasons last year and it’s not all on on them. The starting point has to be upgrading the inside of the D-line. Without improved play there, no one can succeed.

The simplified scheme should help as well. Going back to an aggressive 1-gap penetrating scheme simplifies things for everyone. It even adds another player in the box in many cases.

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Another item to address is his snap count. Jaylon played a staggering 1026 snaps last season. That’s 98% of the defense’s snaps. While that kind of workload and durability should be commended, we need to assess how many of those snaps were quality snaps. All too often Jaylon looked like he was on fumes, conserving energy, or just disinterested. If Dallas can cut him down from a 98% workload player to a 75% workload player, I think they’ll be happy with the results.

As we’ve seen with Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence, the lighter workload makes players more impactful in critical moments. Many will agree, we’d rather see a backup LB giving 100% on 25% of Jaylon’s plays than Jaylon giving 80% all the time.

Some things can’t be fixed. Jaylon’s change of direction is always going to be a problem. The Dallas Cowboys need him playing downhill as often as possible. That means more SAM and less time on passing downs. Keep in mind, this also solves the snap count issue. Removing him in passing situations will avoid his flaws and allow him to stay fresh.

The Dallas Cowboys are stuck with Jaylon Smith for at least another season. But the Jaylon we saw in 2020 doesn’t have to be the Jaylon we see in 2021. If the Cowboys make some adjustments, they may be able to make this work.

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Now step back while I sarcastically swipe to celebrate my victory at writing a somewhat positive article about Jaylon Smith.

  • Published on 03/03/2021 at 12:01 PM
  • Last updated at 03/03/2021 at 09:31 AM