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Film study: How did Jaylon Smith perform in his first game as a Giant?

NFL: Player Headshots 2021
Jaylon Smith
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants signed Jaylon Smith to the 53-man roster from their practice squad after 17 defensive snaps against his former team on Sunday. The signing of Smith and cornerback Jarren Williams followed the additions of Daniel Jones and Sterling Shepard to the crowded Giants’ Injured Reserve list.

Smith virtually had no practice time with the Giants. He only participated in a walk-through on Saturday after New York elevated him to the active roster as a COVID-19 replacement. Head coach Joe Judge said this about Smith after the game.

“I thought Jaylon got in the game yesterday and obviously had about four to six hours of coaching to get him ready for the game. Had a walk-through with the defense” Judge said. ”I really liked the way this guy responded, and he’s been a pleasure to coach in the short window we’ve had. He went out there, he played fast, he’s able to go ahead and get his hat on a few people to make some plays.”

Smith did make three solo tackles (four total) and had several plays that piqued my interest. Smith started the season as a Dallas Cowboy, but Dallas released him due to questionable play. The Green Bay Packers then gave the former Notre Dame star a shot, and that only lasted two games (27 defensive snaps).

The 26-year-old had the potential of being a top 5 selection in 2016 before he suffered a terrible knee injury in the team’s bowl game against Ohio State. The injury carried a risk of potential long-term nerve damage, and Smith fell to the second round.

Jones rewarded Smith’s hot start with a six-year, $68-million contract that would have extended through 2024. His play seemed to deteriorate under Mike Nolan’s defense, and the start to 2020 wasn’t much better. However, Smith assembled four solid years of tape before 2020 and is well worth the flier. Here are some plays from his game on Sunday.

(Jaylon Smith is No. 45)

Tackling

This play was Smith’s second as a Giant. Smith didn’t test at the combine, but one reason he was a potential top-five selection was his unique athletic ability at Notre Dame. We see it on display here as a strong-side linebacker in base personnel. The pass is to the weak-side, a flare to the explosive Tony Pollard (20), and Smith sees the route develop before Dak Prescott throws the ball. Lorenzo Carter (59) blitzes, along with Tae Crowder (48), so the field side is wide open with two clear outs from the wide receivers. Smith takes a good angle to the football and delivers a hard hit on Pollard, who only gained 2 yards.

Patrick Graham used Smith in various locations; he’s aligned at WILL here against 12 personnel in a YY set to the field. New York is in a TITE formation, and Dallas runs an OT-Lead with the frontside tackle and guard pulling outside on this pin-pull rushing concept.

Smith shows a lot of discipline in this play; he initially thinks about undercutting the outside run by hitting the inside A-gap off the backside of Austin Johnson (98). He presents himself in that hole and moves on. He then thinks about hitting the frontside B-gap underneath Leonard Williams (99) but reconsiders as he sees the path of Ezekiel Elliott (21) expand. Smith does an excellent job keeping himself square to the line of scrimmage, effectively scraping over the top of the blocks in front of him. Williams gives him an assist by taking out two blockers, and Smith puts himself right in Elliott’s path for the tackle.

Graham dialed up the pressure against Prescott and the Cowboys. On this play, he sends Smith off the boundary side. He’s unblocked, but he does a good job adjusting his path and keeping himself tight to the line of scrimmage once he sees all the linemen step in one direction. He makes a hard hit on Pollard for a small gain.

Here’s Smith’s fourth tackle, and it comes in coverage. He is aligned initially over Amari Cooper (19); he expands outside at the snap and then squares himself to Cooper, who ran a crossing route. He gets to the near hip of Cooper and sees Dalton Schultz (86) make the catch on the hitch. He quickly comes off the assignment of Cooper and helps Xavier McKinney (29) make the tackle.

Taking on blocks

Smith’s ability to stack and shed blocks isn’t his strongest trait.

Graham aligned Smith shaded, slightly stacked, to the strong side off Danny Shelton (75). Smith attempts to get outside on the halfback pitch, and he’s met with a climbing offensive lineman who drives him backward. It’s a challenging assignment for a linebacker when an interior offensive lineman gets a clean release like the one we see above, but getting driven backward is never something you want to see.

A lineman gets to him again on this play where he’s shaded to the weak side, but I like how he adjusts his path upon realizing Elliott finding the cutback lane. The running back attempts to go inside of the block of Williams, who just owns the point of attack; Smith realizes this quickly and works his way back inside as well. Solid recognition from the former Golden Domer, but shedding seems to be an issue.

I love the positioning of Smith in this play. He quickly puts himself in the correct position, which forces Elliott to bounce his run inside, but we see what happens when the lineman gets his hands on Smith. Dallas runs counter, and Smith takes on the second puller in the hole, leaving no room for Elliott to run; not that he tried because a small gap opened up but was closed quickly by Carter, the unblocked defender. The positioning of Smith is decisive, quick, and disrupts the play’s intent, but the strength and anchor need work.

On EDGE

In passing situations, Graham was not shy with his new linebacker. He allowed Smith to show his pass-rushing ability in the final two minutes of the first half. Graham may have wanted a veteran in these situations, or maybe someone who knew the Cowboys well, or possibly just wanted to see how he would perform in this area. Either way, he didn’t pressure Prescott.

The offensive tackle didn’t seem too stressed with Smith’s ability to use pass-rushing moves at the top of the arc. La’El Collins (71) meets Smith and handles the chop/rip combination. I don’t mind seeing Graham attempt to use Smith in this manner.

Final thoughts

The Giants lost their star linebacker Blake Martinez in Week 3. Tae Crowder is a solid replacement-level player, and Reggie Ragland is athletically limited. I appreciate the physicality of Benardrick McKinney. However, none of these players are desired starters for a competitive football team. Smith used to be one.

I’m not under the impression that Jaylon Smith will slide onto the Giants and earn a significant role with this team moving forward, but I do like the Giants giving an opportunity, at a position of need, to a once-talented player to possibly reignite his abilities. This coaching staff prides itself on their ability to teach, not just to coach. That, unfortunately, hasn’t manifested any wins.

But it wasn’t long ago that we witnessed Graham get the best seasons out of James Bradberry, Leonard Williams, Jabrill Peppers, and Blake Martinez, so why not add a cheap high upside player with athletic capability? He needs to get stronger and do a better job shedding blocks at the second level, but he displayed some processing ability on Sunday. His 17 snap count should grow against the Eagles next Sunday. Smith’s athletic ability can hopefully combat the speed and quickness of quarterback Jalen Hurts, at least much better than the Giants’ other linebackers.

It won’t be an easy task against a team that ran for more than 200 yards against the Giants just a few weeks ago (ironically, a Giants’ win), but I’m willing to roll the dice on Jaylon Smith over the likes of Ragland.