Jaylon Smith is an intriguing New York Jets target
In a surprise move, the Dallas Cowboys released starting linebacker Jaylon Smith. The Notre Dame product was selected by Dallas with the 34th overall pick in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft and has played in all 68 Cowboys games since, starting 56 of those.
The #Cowboys are moving on from LB Jaylon Smith, as @AdamSchefter reported. The move isn’t official until tomorrow afternoon, so there’s still the possibility of a trade, though that doesn’t seem very likely.
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) October 6, 2021
Smith is a tantalizing name who has fanbases across the league clamoring for his services. He ranks fifth in the NFL with 435 tackles since 2018 and was a Pro Bowler at 24 years old in 2019. The Indiana native is still only 26.
Should the New York Jets take a look at adding Smith?
State of the New York Jets linebacker position
Leading the linebacker unit is C.J. Mosley, who is healthy and in peak form.
Playing 99% of the team’s defensive snaps this season, Mosley has been a play-making machine. He has collected 20 tackles that held the ball carrier short of the first down marker and to a gain of no more than four yards. That ties him for third-most in the NFL.
Quincy Williams has started alongside Mosley over the past three games, rarely coming off of the field (playing 94% of the defensive snaps on average).
Williams is struggling with missed tackles (15.4% miss rate – LB average is 10.7%) and coverage (team-high 3.0 first downs allowed per game) but has flashed supreme athletic ability and a tremendous knack for making splashy plays.
The older brother of Quinnen has already recorded one sack, one forced fumble, one pass breakup, and five tackles for loss. His total of five tackles for loss is tied for the second-most in the NFL among linebackers.
Williams has the potential to be a great linebacker. He needs to play with more discipline and patience to cut down on his missed tackles, coverage losses, and angling mistakes in pursuit. That’s easier said than done, but if he can do it, he has the tools to dominate.
Rookie linebacker Jamien Sherwood began the season as the starter next to Mosley, but went down with an injury early in the season opener. Upon returning in Week 3, he has been relegated to the No. 3 linebacker role, ceasing the starting job to Williams. Sherwood has played 32% of the defensive snaps on average over the past two games.
Del’Shawn Phillips rounds out the team’s current stable of active linebackers.
Rookie linebacker Hamsah Nasirildeen, who had been removed from the defensive rotation after starting the year as the No. 3 linebacker, has been placed on injured reserve with an undisclosed injury.
Davis was signed on a one-year, $5.5 million contract to start alongside Mosley. He went down with an ankle injury in the preseason that was announced to have a two-month recovery timetable on Aug. 23. The Jets expect him to be back at some point soon after the team’s Week 6 bye. They play the Patriots on Oct. 24 and the Bengals on Oct. 31.
As it pertains to Jaylon Smith, the Jets do not necessarily have a gaping need at linebacker right now with Williams assimilating into a starting role and Davis on his way back soon.
With that being said, Mosley is the unit’s only proven good player. Williams still has a lot of proving to do, and so does Davis, who is coming off of a tumultuous career in Detroit where he did not find his footing until his role was severely diminished.
If the Jets like Smith, there isn’t a great reason not to take a flier on him. The entire linebacker unit is made up of fliers outside of Mosley. Why not add another to the mix if you love his game?
Let’s dig into Smith’s strengths and weaknesses.
Jaylon Smith has been solid in coverage throughout his career. He has given up 1,713 yards on 240 targets, according to Pro Football Focus, an average of 7.1 yards per target that is slightly better than the 2020 league average for linebackers (7.3).
Smith has been blamed for allowing only five touchdown receptions in 70 career games, an average of one every 14 games. He gave up one over 16 appearances in 2020 and has not given up any over four games in 2021.
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Jaylon Smith possesses low missed tackle totals. He has a career tackle-to-missed tackle ratio of 12.2-to-1. That is much better than the 2020 league average for linebackers (8.3-to-1).
Smith has made 18 tackles in 2021 and is yet to miss one.
Jaylon Smith is an effective blitzer. He has 46 pressures on 273 career pass-rush snaps, giving him a pressure rate of 16.8% that beats out the 2020 league average of 14.3% for linebackers. Smith has 9.0 sacks in his career.
Run defense, 2020 struggles
The run game is where the questions begin for Jaylon Smith.
Smith had been a high-level run defender over the first three years of his career in defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s 4-3 defense. In 2019, he was graded as PFF’s eighth-best linebacker against the run (81.3 run defense grade).
In 2020, the Cowboys hired Mike Nolan as their defensive coordinator and switched to a hybrid scheme. Smith’s performance against the run dipped significantly. His run defense grade dropped to 47.3, ranking 49th out of 67 qualified linebackers.
PFF’s grades for linebackers can be peculiar (they don’t think Mosley has been good this year, which is odd to say the least), but in this case, they seem to be correct. Smith was universally panned by Cowboys observers and national media members alike for his performance in 2020. His effort (or lack thereof) against the run was a particular criticism.
The issue with the Dallas defense isn't the complexity of the scheme. 👇🏻 pic.twitter.com/is4O9E6oMo
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) October 5, 2020
The 2020 season was a disappointment for Smith in all areas – not just the run game. He gave up a career-high 7.9 yards per target in coverage, committed a career-high eight penalties to lead all linebackers, and had his worst season as a blitzer with a career-low 12.3% pressure rate (2020 LB average: 14.3%).
Continued issues in 2021
The Cowboys fired Mike Nolan and replaced him with Dan Quinn, who is utilizing a similar hybrid approach.
Jaylon Smith’s issues against the run have persisted in 2021. His 37.4 run defense grade currently ranks 82nd out of 90 qualified linebackers.
To boot, Smith is on pace to set another new career-high in yards per target allowed, currently yielding an average of 8.6 yards per target.
Should the Jets pursue Jaylon Smith?
Whether or not the Jets should pursue Jaylon Smith all comes down to the Jets’ personal convictions based on what they see from Smith’s tape (which is the case for any player).
If Joe Douglas and the Jets are head over heels for Smith based on the potential he showed early in his career and think that a move back into a 4-3 base defense can be beneficial, then they should by all means go for it. It’s also worth noting that Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich are career-long linebacker gurus who could see Smith as another intriguing talent to mold.
However, it has to be kept in mind that Smith is available for a reason. His performance dipped notably in 2020 and those woes have seemed to seep into 2021. He was just released completely out of the blue. Dallas also tried to shopped Smith and could not find a trade partner. Clearly, the league is not very high on him right now.
Plus, the Jets have some good things going for them in the linebacker room. Williams seems to be improving. There are two young rookies working on converting from safety. Davis is on the way back. Perhaps it would be better to focus on developing the guys in-house instead of throwing another wild card into the mix and taking reps away from everyone else.
Do you think the Jets should go after Jaylon Smith? Let us know in the comments.