Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst once said “…we’d like to really be aggressive and see if we can be in every conversation” with regard to other teams free agent players.
Packer fans have noted that there’s been a lot of talk and not a lot of action over Gutekunst’s tenure when potentially impactful players hit the market. This morning Gutekunst had a conversation he must’ve liked with the representatives for former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, coming to an agreement on a one year deal with the Packers.
It was a whirlwind day for the Packers yesterday, starting with Matt LaFleur providing a less than stellar update on cornerback Jaire Alexander. LaFleur was predictably cagey about the star corner, saying that Packers are hoping to avoid surgery for Alexander “at all costs”. LaFleur also couldn’t offer a timeline for his return or rule out the injury being season ending.
Shortly before Matt LaFleur’s presser, word broke that the New England Patriots were expected to release 4x Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Like clockwork, senior NFL reporter Albert Breer reported that the Packers were one of the preferred destinations for the stud corner.
Like we’ve grown accustomed to, Gilmore was traded to the Carolina Panthers yesterday afternoon for a sixth round draft pick. Just another in a long line of talented players who’ve flirted with Green Bay and ended up elsewhere. With the Packers tight against the salary cap it would have taken the Patriots outright releasing Gilmore to make things work in Titletown as they could not afford him at his current salary.
Is Jaylon Smith a consolation prize?
During the 2015 college football season, Smith was regarded as one of the best defensive prospects in the nation at Notre Dame. Smith, a consensus All-American and winner of the Dick Butkus award for the best linebacker in college football tragically suffered a torn acl/mcl with nerve damage in Notre Dame’s bowl game.
The injury was so brutal that it called into question whether Smith would ever be able to play football at a high level again, if at all. In the 2016 NFL draft, many teams had removed the surefire first rounder from their boards completely due to his medical history. The Cowboys decided that the value was too great in the second round and swooped in on Smith, thanks in large part to the assurance of Cowboys team physician Dr. Daniel Cooper who also performed the knee reconstruction on Smith.
The 2016 NFL season was a red-shirt season for Smith as he rehabbed, hoping to recover from the lingering nerve damage in his leg. By the start of the 2017 season, Smith was miraculously back on the field and started six games for the Cowboys with reasonable success.
The 2018 season was Jaylon Smith’s coming out party.
At 23 years old, Smith looked like an absolute stud in the middle of Dallas’ defense. Starting all 16 games, Smith tallied four sacks, two forced fumbles, a defensive touchdown and a zillion tackles. What a comeback story!
In 2019, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones rewarded Smith with a five year contract extension and $35.5 million guaranteed. Smith had another strong season, being voted to the Pro Bowl and tallying more eye-popping stats, but some cracks were beginning to show.
Smith’s 2020 season numbers on paper looked good, one pick, 1.5 sacks, 150+ tackles all while starting 16 games. But as we know with players like Blake Martinez, the stat sheet doesn’t always tell the whole story. Smith was consistently a step or two slow in coverage and was even slower to diagnose plays in front of him. You can amass lots of tackles, but if they are 15 yards past the line of scrimmage that doesn’t help the unit much.
There were some rumblings amongst Cowboys fans that once Jaylon Smith had gotten his big payday, his interest in football began to wane. Prior to the 2020 season, Smith had begun a side-career as a private equity investor in minority owned businesses and started his own eyewear line. Worthy endeavors certainly, but it’s not a stretch to say that being a star caliber player in the NFL requires 110% of your attention to stay on top.
Then in late spring of this year, Jaylon Smith announced that he was swapping jersey numbers from no. 54 to no. 9. Smith paid an amount in the mid six figures to buy up the existing no. 54 jersey inventory per NFL rules to facilitate the switch, but could have done it free of charge if he had waited until after the 2021 season. Although the move to no. 9 was approved by Jerry Jones it was widely panned by Cowboys fans as no. 9 was worn most recently by famed quarterback Tony Romo and was thought to be pseudo-retired.
Where does Jaylon Smith fit on the Packers?
It sounds to me like Jaylon Smith’s fall from grace is as much (or more) about personality and personnel than it is about on-field performance. The Cowboy’s still have Smith’s battery-mate in former first rounder Leighton Vander Esch, and spent a first round pick on linebacker/pass rusher Micah Parsons of Penn State leaving a crowded linebacker room and the well paid Smith on the outside looking in.
Low risk, high reward?
What I like about this move is that it’s very low cost and Jaylon Smith has just turned 26 years old. There are lots of unknowns about Smith, primarily if he is indeed healthy or if his catastrophic injury has finally caught up to him.
Smith is also not the first NFL player to have potentially lost “the fire” to play at a high level after being handed a massive contract.
The Packers could be the beneficiaries of a newly hungry Jaylon Smith, ready to earn another payday.
I can see Smith playing more of the traditional MIKE role on early downs to start with and then expanding his repertoire as the season progresses if he plays well. At minimum, Smith provides depth in the linebacker room with Khrys Barnes an injury question mark.
With the emergence of De’Vondre Campbell, Smith will hopefully not be asked to play much in coverage and predictably will be put in positions where his skillset can flourish.
Smith does have some pass rush ability, which will be sorely needed without Za’Darius Smith for the foreseeable future and it was reported today that rotational pass rusher Chauncey Rivers suffered a likely ACL tear in yesterday’s practice.
This is likely a one year stay for Jaylon Smith in Green Bay. If he performs poorly he won’t be back, and if he performs well he’ll likely price himself out of the cash strapped Packers market. Hopefully the light comes on for Smith and he can be an impact player on a defense that is in need of help after being bitten by the injury bug.
You can follow Adam on twitter at @adamjcarlson28.