This article originally appeared on The Sports Quotient
The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the linebacker position. Today we look at Jaylon Smith out of The University of Notre Dame.
Jaylon Smith arrived in South Bend with a lot of hype surrounding him. He won the High School Butkus award and was considered the top linebacker recruit in the country in 2013 by many different media outlets. After three years, we can all agree that Smith was definitely as good as advertised. A starter for all three years at Notre Dame, Smith really began to flourish in his sophomore season when he was moved to the middle linebacker position.
Since being moved inside, Jaylon Smith has been one of the best defensive players in the country. He was in on over 110 tackles each of the last two seasons. His sophomore season ended in a Second Team All-American selection. His junior season resulted in him being a First Team All-American selection, and the recipient of the collegiate Butkus Award. Smith and fellow former Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o are the only two players to win the award at both the high school and college level.
Smith had many highlights in his amazing college career at Notre Dame, but unfortunately, he had one huge lowlight to end his career when he tore his ACL and MCL against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
When you watch Jaylon Smith on film, you’re watching a player who jumps off the screen. He’s extremely athletic, and has good height and arm length for the position. Although his injury prevented him from running an official 40-yard dash during the draft process, he was an excellent sprinter in high school and his film shows a player who has the speed of an NFL linebacker. This athleticism, size, and speed allow him to make plays all over the field.
Jaylon Smith’s greatest strength is his versatility. He’s a Swiss Army Knife at the linebacker position who can play any of the linebacker positions in either a 4-3 or a 3-4. His versatility should make the defensive coordinator that gets his hands on him salivate about the thought of playing him all over the field.
While at Notre Dame, Jaylon Smith also demonstrated a valuable ability to play solid man coverage. With the NFL moving to more and more of a passing league, being able to cover is critical for any linebacker who wants to stay on the field for all three downs.
Also, while he was not asked to rush the passer much at Notre Dame, he has all of the physical tools to be a good pass rusher, and recently put out a video compilation of himself as a pass rusher that shows that he does have some natural pass rushing ability.
Before we discuss any of his on-field weaknesses, we have to bring up the elephant in the room. Every discussion about Jaylon Smith’s cons as a draft prospect start with the health of his knee. He tore his ACL and MCL in the last game of the season. Although, all indications are that his surgery was successful, that knee is a huge red flag. Some NFL scouts believe that he won’t be able to play in the 2016 season, and are unsure how this injury will impact his game going forward.
Besides the knee, Jaylon Smith needs to improve his ability to diagnose plays. He sometimes would let his athleticism get the best of him and play his way out of position, especially on misdirection plays.
Jaylon Smith also needs to get stronger, and learn how to fight off blocks better in order to succeed in the NFL. With his arm length, he should never let blockers get into his body and take him out of the play. If he can learn to shed blockers quicker, he can be an even more dangerous playmaker than he already is.
I really like Jaylon Smith. He has the potential to be one of the best linebackers for years to come. I love his athleticism, versatility, and ability to make plays all over the field. However, he does need to work on diagnosing plays. Whatever defensive coach gets his hands on Smith would be wise to have him spend his “time off” in the film room to correct some of these issues in his game.
Although I believe Jaylon Smith can play all over the field, his best position is probably an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense or an outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense. His game reminds me a lot of Navarro Bowman; both players are athletic linebackers who make plays from sideline to sideline.
Projecting where Smith will go is incredibly tough. If it wasn’t for the knee injury, he’d be a potential top five pick. Now, I’m not a doctor and I can’t even pretend like I play one on TV, so I don’t know when that knee is going to be fully healed and I don’t know how it’ll affect his play going forward.
I’ve only heard good things about how Smith’s recovery is going, and (I think) he should be able to make a full recovery. However, I can understand why teams would be wary and not willing to take a gamble on him. I think he’ll still probably go somewhere in the first round, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he falls into Day 2.
Whoever drafts Jaylon Smith has to be willing to be patient with him. Teams that are in win now mode or have coaches/GMs on the hot seat may not be willing to wait a year to get one of their top picks on the field. However, the team that takes him could be getting a game-changing defensive player to anchor their defense for the next decade.
That being said, two teams that would be a good fit for Smith are the Chicago Bears and the Atlanta Falcons. Neither team is a serious contender this upcoming season and both teams could use a defensive playmaker, which a healthy Smith can become.
Both teams also have defensive minded head coaches (John Fox and Dan Quinn) who I think would take the time to help Smith tweak the issues in his game and reach his full potential. I think Fox and Quinn would also be able to use his versatility well and unleash his sideline to sideline playmaking ability.