After falling victim to a knee injury that caused Dallas Cowboys’ linebacker Jaylon Smith to surrender his rookie season, the former Notre Dame superstar has effectively turned into a centerpiece on one of the NFL’s emerging defenses.
Smith earned a 69.4 season grade in 2017 and has since improved that to an 80.0 mark in 2018, the latter ranking seventh among all qualifying off-ball linebackers.
The area of Smith’s game which has improved most substantially is his ability to defend against the run. After earning a 53.5 run-defense grade last season, Smith has received a 74.4 grade in the area this year, already eclipsing his run-stop total from a season ago. Smith has recorded a defensive stop on 8.4% of his run-defense snaps this season, nearly a whole percent better than his mark a season ago.
An enhanced workload has had a direct correlation with the uptick in Smith’s production throughout his 2018 campaign. His 2018 total of 712 snaps played towers over his previous year totals of zero snaps played in 2016 and 575 total snaps in 2017. Coverage snaps are the area of Smith’s game where he’s received the most opportunity this season. He has already played 88 more coverage snaps in total and has lined up as a cornerback 37 more times than a season ago.
Smith has yet to give up a touchdown this season and has also not allowed one throughout his whole career.
Some of Smith’s success can be attributed to the improvement of the entire defense. Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Leighton Vander Esch has burst onto the NFL scene, earning an 88.5 overall grade that ranks just behind All-Pro defenders Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly in 2018. The emergence of cornerback Byron Jones (87.3 overall grade) has also aided the Dallas secondary.
Smith has rushed the passer just 56 times this season, but he has pressured the quarterback on 26.8% of those snaps (15 total pressures). His 83.3 pass-rush grade ranks seventh among all NFL linebackers with no snap restrictions.
Dallas' budding star at linebacker — not named Vander Esch — has proved to be a fantastic long-term investment, as Smith is now the second-highest graded linebacker from the 2016 draft class behind Cleveland Browns‘ Joe Schobert. Dallas' defense is in good hands with young, prolific playmakers across the board. This season's improvement is just the beginning for Smith and a Cowboys defense that will be a force for years to come.