Scouting Report: Could the Miami Dolphins Gamble on Jaylon Smith?

Background & Stats:

If you are a football fan and haven’t heard the name Jaylon Smith, I assume that may be changing soon. Not often are potential Top-3 talents discussed for teams with the 13th pick in the draft, but here we are doing exactly that with Smith. In fact, it would be a surprise at this point to see him go even that early. After seeming like a contender for the first overall pick for much of his junior year, Smith tore his ACL and MCL during the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Now his draft stock is in doubt. He is still a lock to be drafted and presumably early. It is just a matter of what team will be the first to pull the trigger.

The 2015 Butkus Award winner for the nation’s top linebacker, Smith accumulated some unbelievable stats over the course of his three seasons. For starters, he was consistently among the nation’s top tacklers with 284 in his career (226 combined as a sophomore and junior). He added 23.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. Smith has a long road to recovery ahead of him and is expected to miss the 2016 season but, if he can return to this level of production, his new team will undoubtedly have gotten themselves a steal.

Positives:

Jaylon Smith is one of the most complete defensive prospects to enter the draft in years. He has the desired measurements, elite athleticism, and the production to back it up. If any player were going to be able to overcome an injury of this magnitude and return to being a star, it would be Smith. However, unlike so many players in college who have all of the tools but struggle to put them together, Smith combines his physical prowess with amazing instincts and a high football IQ.

All of these skills allow him to be a tackling machine. He quickly diagnoses plays and has really impressive change of direction skills, making him as reliable as they come in terms of making plays in space. Watch below as he quickly breaks on the ball carrier, makes a sound tackle, and forces fourth down:

Smith in space

Smith’s game speed and quickness are unbelievable for his size as well. He shows great short area burst on tape, allowing him to exploit holes in blocking. This is significant both in his pass rush as well as in run support. In this play, Smith runs along the offensive line until he finally recognizes a seam to the running back:

Smith stop

Whereas in this play, Smith comes on the blitz, forces the running back backwards, and explodes toward the quarterback to force an incompletion:

Smith blitz

His burst suits him well in space as well. For example, with the help of his play recognition, he is consistently able to make plays on the edge. Watch this play against Florida State in 2014, as Smith recognizes that Jameis Winston is trying to scramble:

Smith edge

While his tackling presence is definitely his calling card, he offers upside in other areas as well. Despite his production in the sacks department being less than spectacular, he has displayed a myriad of tools that should allow him to be a versatile pass rusher as a professional, both up the middle and off the edge. Take this play for example:

Smith sack

Smith also carries a ton of potential in coverage. While he has room to improve in his man coverage technique and in tracking the ball once it is in the air, he undoubtedly has the necessary athleticism, specifically with his speed, and hip fluidity. With a little bit of coaching, he could be a standout in this area. Watch how Smith remains on the hip of the receiver on this play even once he breaks up field:

Smith coverage

There are very few things not to love about Smith’s all-around game. He is the prototypical linebacker in today’s NFL, and it truly does show in his tape. If it weren’t for his injury, this would be a cant-miss player.

Negatives:

Despite being a legitimate stud, Smith can afford to make a couple of improvements as a professional. Luckily, these changes are mostly feasible. First of all, he can have trouble disengaging from blocks. The play below perfectly depicts this sentiment:

Smith run game

This may speak to a lack of core strength. Fortunately, he should benefit from an NFL training program. However, his progress in this regard could also be stunted due to his injury, and the problem could possibly be the result of being too timid to take on blocks. If NFL coaches can get him to approach run support the way he attacks ball carriers in the open field, then he will be one step closer to being a defensive cornerstone.

Smith also had slight problems with missed tackles in college. While he improved tremendously from his sophomore to junior season, he needs to make sure that these issues are in his past. Similarly, I hope to see more production from him rushing the passer once he is finally healthy. While I believe this was mostly due to the way he was used at Notre Dame, it will be nice to see him finally display this part of his game on the field.

ct-notre-dame-linebacker-jaylon-smith-walking-20160224

(Christian Peterson/Getty Images)

With that being said, none of these “weaknesses” really matter all that much. All that is keeping Smith from being a stud in the NFL is his health. It is so difficult to project players that have suffered knee injuries. While every injury varies in degree, there has never been a time when simultaneously tearing one’s ACL and MCL is looked at as anything less than devastating.

His injury creates questions about when he will be back to full health, and it is far from a guarantee that he will maintain the same level of explosiveness, change of direction ability, and short area quickness after his recovery. Drafting him is more than just a question of when he returns, but rather if he will ever be the player he was before. The potential for greatness ensures that a team will call his name at some point on draft day, but at what point is an entirely different story. This is what makes him one of the biggest risk-reward prospects in recent memory and an extremely unique draft day story.

How He Fits in Miami:

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(Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports)

The linebacker corps in Miami is young and has some talent, but lacks anyone remotely close to Smith in terms of explosiveness and playmaking ability. There is no way to know how far his injury will cause him to fall, as it mostly depends on each team’s medical evaluation of his knee.

The Dolphins have a stacked defensive line, but it won’t be nearly as dominant as it could be without execution from the linebackers behind them. Smith could play anywhere along the second level, inside or out, and immediately bring excitement and consistency to a group that has sorely missed it over the past few years. Miami would presumably love to have Smith on-board due to his versatility as well. His wide array of skills would suit him perfectly for either the 4-3 defense or 3-4 scheme, which is significant as there is no clear timetable for when the Dolphins aim to make the transition. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph would love to have a weapon like the former Notre Dame star at his disposal. Watching Smith take advantage of the holes created by Ndamukong Suh would be an absolute joy to watch for Dolphins fans and a nightmare for everyone else.

If the dreams of Smith playing behind Suh are going to come to fruition, they will need two things: 1) to accept the fact that this is a move for the future, not the present; and 2) a little bit of luck. Even based on the most optimistic of opinions, Dolphins fans wouldn’t see Smith on the field for at least a year. Miami would be making this move knowing that it could potentially give them their second franchise cornerstone on defense for years to come.

However, to even have the possibility of making that decision, they are going to need some help. I don’t think the Dolphins would risk picking Smith at 13, especially after the disaster that was Dion Jordan. Now, these are two totally different situations, but Smith’s left knee simply carries too much potential for disaster to consider drafting that early. How about the end of the first round however? Can’t we all imagine one of the leagues’ heavyweights making the call? The Dolphins would need these teams to resist the urge and for Smith to fall to them at pick 42. Who knows, Smith may even fall further than that. It is simply impossible to determine without knowing the consensus on his knee. If the Dolphins go with Reggie Ragland with their first pick as our very own Max Himmelrich has advocated, then it is safe to say they will ignore Jaylon Smith in the second round. However, what if they choose to address another need in the first round? The prospective grouping of Smith, Kiko Alonso, Koa Misi, and Jelani Jenkins could certainly be intriguing enough to force their hand.

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