Packers: A Closer Look at Jaylon Smith & What He Adds to Defense

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - JANUARY 03: Jaylon Smith #54 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates a sack by teammate DeMarcus Lawrence , against the New York Giants during the fourth quarter at MetLife Stadium on January 03, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - JANUARY 03: Jaylon Smith #54 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates a sack by teammate DeMarcus Lawrence , against the New York Giants during the fourth quarter at MetLife Stadium on January 03, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

After the initial reports from Ian Rapoport, it was expected, but now it is official. The Green Bay Packers have signed former Pro Bowl linebacker Jaylon Smith.

Smith was released by the Dallas Cowboys earlier this week. Although Dallas does still owe him his entire $7.2 million base salary in 2021, they avoid being on the hook for guaranteeing his $9.2 million base salary in 2022 had he become injured, according to Todd Archer of ESPN.

This was also a very crowded linebacker room in Dallas, featuring Micah Parsons, Jabril Cox, Leighton Vander Esch, and Keanu Neal.

Smith would miss his rookie season in 2016, still recovering from a major knee injury that he suffered while at Notre Dame. The following year he would see action in all 16 games, including six starts. That season, Smith recorded 81 tackles, six pressures, and sack.

Over the next three seasons, Smith was a durable, full-time starter for the Cowboys, making starts in all 48 games during that span. From 2018 to 2020, Smith would record 121 tackles, 142 tackles, and 154 tackles, respectively. He also totaled 38 pressures and ten sacks per PFF ($$) and was a Pro Bowler in 2019.

In 2021, Smith made two starts and has appeared in all four games and was second on the team in total snaps at the linebacker position. Smith has 18 tackles and two pressures this season.

Smith will be joining a Packers linebacker unit with De’Vondre Campbell, Krys Barnes, Oren Burks, Ty Summers, and Isaiah McDuffie. We will have to wait and see where he fits in with this defense.

Campbell is, of course, going to be Batman at the linebacker position. Meanwhile, Barnes is still in concussion protocol and has provided a steady, albeit unspectacular, presence. I would expect Smith to see playing time over Burks, Summers, and McDuffie, but those three do provide more special teams upside.

To help us get to know the newest member of the Green Bay Packers, I’ve called in some help. Reid Hanson of Sport DFW, where they cover anything and everything about the Dallas area sports teams, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions and to provide us with some insight into Jaylon Smith.

Many have mentioned that the 2021 version of Jaylon Smith is not the same player that we saw a few seasons ago; what has changed, and is this the reason Dallas was comfortable moving on?

Reid: Jaylon Smith has had a bizarre career with the Cowboys. First, there’s the infamous knee injury he had to overcome. After red-shirting for a year and a half, he broke out big in 2018. Even though he was noticeably hampered by his knee, he was a star and playmaker. Cowboys fans loved him.

He took that amazing season and cashed in, preemptively signing an extension in the summer. Sadly, that was his last good season. He would go on to post gaudy tackle numbers in 2019 and 2020 while playing a ridiculous number of snaps, but he was a mess. He made the Pro Bowl in 2019 but that was on his reputation from 2018, not his play in 2019. Bob Strum at The Athletic ($$) has been chronicling his poor play for quite some time and most of us that watch and grade film have been very vocal about Smith’s poor play over the years since.

Here’s the thing – Dallas would have cut him this offseason but since his salary was fully guaranteed this year it was pointless. At the start of the season, he was no better than LB4 and he refused to play special teams. He logged only 16 snaps in week 1. Injuries to the position group gave him more playing time in weeks 2-4, but with players now returning, he would be back to LB4.

The reason he was cut right now is because there’s injury protections in his contract that guarantees his money in 2022 should he sustain a major injury. Dallas didn’t want him this season, let alone be on the hook for next, so they paid him to leave.

What would you consider the strength of Smith’s game—where can he be successful?

Reid: Contrary to popular belief he’s extremely durable. For being as big as he is, Jaylon isn’t very physical. He prefers to run and chase rather than fill a hole and that allows him to stay healthy week in and week out. He’s at his best running downhill. His change of direction is poor but if he can catch you running straight with a full head of steam – look out.

On the flip side, what gives him issues?

Reid: Just about everything else gives him issues. He can’t turn and change direction because of his knee. You can see him drag it when he turns in coverage. Opponents see it and abuse him. He plays a lot of “hero ball” and freelances.

It’s painful to watch him abandon his run-fits so he can run off somewhere – often in the wrong direction. He doesn’t fill gaps but likes to make tackles further downfield. Again, he doesn’t play physical. His leadership is also more optics than reality. Players aren’t saying anything publicly but you can tell he’s wearing thin.

Overall, what can Packers fans expect from Smith, and do you think he can regain some of his past form?

Reid: If you can keep his jersey clean with stout DT play, Jaylon can be a serviceable MIKE or SAM in base packages. Get him off the field in passing situations though. Keep his snap count low and he’ll probably deliver more effort and physicality. He plays to survive so if he feels he has to play 90% of the snaps he’s going to adjust his energy accordingly. He’s extremely friendly, mature, and will be wonderful to cover from a media perspective.