The Green Bay Packers signed former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith to a one-year league-minimum contract Thursday in an effort to boost a linebacker corps that’s long needed a player with Smith’s upside, even if he’s struggled on the field as of late.
The Cowboys discarded Smith after four games of hard-to-define play. He’s earned a 69.5 season grade from Pro Football Focus this year, which ranks 11th among linebackers with at least 100 snaps, but his gameday performances hardly feel that impressive. Dig a little deeper into the analytics and Smith’s poor grade in run defense—37.4—has made him a liability on Dallas’ second level. Still, Smith joins the Packers as a player whose pedigree commands respect.
"I like him as a person, and he's a super like friendly, happy guy, even on the field," said Aaron Rodgers of Smith on Wednesday. "He's a fierce competitor, but he always has a smile on his face. I appreciate that about him, and it was just more of a respectful competitor to competitor conversation after the game."
Rodgers likes Smith, and we know how important it is for the Packers to make transactions that their quarterback is on board with. But just because Smith is a good dude doesn’t mean he’ll make a key third-down stop in a critical game situation.
Head coach Matt LaFleur, who was on Notre Dame’s staff in 2014 when Smith was a sophomore, thinks he’ll be a big help.
"I've always had a lot of respect for him, not only as a football player but as a man," LaFleur said Thursday. "He was one of my favorites when I was at Notre Dame. I just think a veteran guy who's played at a really high level and just can bring kind of a mentality and leadership to our defense."
The Packers’ defense could use whatever help Smith can offer at this point. They’re currently ranked 21st against the pass, 12th against the run, and 19th in points allowed. Terrible? No. Is there room for improvement? Yes.
But is Smith the guy who can bring that upgrade in coverage? According to Pro Football Focus, the answer seems to be yes. He’s scored an 82.2 season grade in coverage, which ranks second among linebackers with at least 100 snaps. Whether his coverage ability is enough to offset his struggles against the run remains to be seen.
Smith is a flashy addition to a 3-1 Packers team that didn’t have to make a significant investment in him. So, sure, he moves the needle a bit, and his presence in the locker room will be a plus, especially if he’s welcomed by Rodgers and the other team leaders. But his actual role on the field will likely be much more limited.
There’s no harm in the Packers kicking the tires on Smith. If he plays with a rejuvenated spark and a chip on his shoulder? Maybe his run defense becomes more fierce and he elevates the play of his teammates around him. At worst? The Packers play him in packages that best suit his skill set.
Remember: 2021 is supposed to be the ‘last dance’ for Rodgers. And if that holds true, adding a veteran like Smith won’t hurt their chances of making a deep playoff run. How much it helps, however, remains to be seen.