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Jaylon Smith: Story of ‘Elite’ Player, Drop Foot and Muddy Ford Bronco

A couple days after being released by the Dallas Cowboys, new Green Bay Packers linebacker Jaylon Smith called himself an "elite" player.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jaylon Smith believes he’s an “elite” player.

“Elite,” Smith, repeating himself, said on Friday following his first practice with the Green Bay Packers.

Presumably, nobody else shares that opinion.

Had the Dallas Cowboys believed Smith was an elite player, they wouldn’t have invested so much at linebacker this offseason. First, they signed veteran safety-turned-linebacker Keanu Neal. Then, they used their first-round pick on Micah Parsons and their fourth-round selection on Jabril Cox. So, with Parsons, Neal and former Pro Bowler Leighton Vander Esch as the starters and Cox biding his time, Smith went from prolific tackler to odd man out.

Jaylon Smith made his Green Bay Packers practice debut on Friday. For more photos, visit Packers.com.

Jaylon Smith made his Green Bay Packers practice debut on Friday. For more photos, visit Packers.com.

Had some other team believed Smith was an elite player, the Cowboys might have found a trade partner for the 2019 Pro Bowler. Instead, the Cowboys dumped him even while swallowing his guaranteed $7.2 million salary.

“I believe every player has their doubters but, for me, everything I’ve done up to this point has been legit and I know what kind of player I am,” he said. “The guys know what kind of player I am. The coaches know. I’m a team guy, and I’m a guy that’s going to add value. So, honestly, I’m just head down, working and, when I get an opportunity, producing is the name of the game. So, I’m locked in and I’m ready to add some value.”

For Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the value was long gone, which is why he released Smith to escape the remainder of the five-year, $64 million contract extension he signed before the 2019 season.

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Speaking on Dallas radio station 105.3 FM, Jones called releasing Smith a difficult decision “principally, because he’s such a warrior. He really was what you think about when you think of somebody overcoming adversity. And for this game, he had a great hurdle to overcome: his injury. And that drop foot that he had – and it still plagues him to this day – was mind over matter in my mind.”

Drop foot, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a “general term for difficulty lifting the front part of the foot.” It is the byproduct of a neurological, muscular or anatomical problem. For Smith, the root of that was the torn ACL and LCL and nerve damage sustained during the Fiesta Bowl that capped the 2015 college football season.

Drop foot “makes it difficult to lift the front part of your foot, so it might drag on the floor when you walk,” according to the Mayo Clinic. “This can cause you to raise your thigh when you walk, as though climbing stairs (steppage gait) to help your foot clear the floor. This unusual gait might cause you to slap your foot down onto the floor with each step. In some cases, the skin on the top of your foot and toes feels numb.”

With a maniacal work ethic, Smith beat the odds made it back. Actually, he did more than make it back. After sitting out the 2016 season and starting six games in 2017, Smith emerged as a true star. During the 2018 through 2020 seasons, Smith was third in the NFL with 417 tackles while adding eight sacks, 18 passes defensed, two interceptions and four forced fumbles. He was a Pro Bowler in 2019 and finished second in the NFL in tackles in 2020.

However, with the change to Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator, the Cowboys loaded up at linebacker. With the young talent, Smith became a highly paid luxury in a sport that doesn’t have room for highly paid luxuries.

“There’s no question we got young players that can fit what we’re doing so well, and they have an upside,” Jones said. "And as I’ve often said: You can’t have it all. Our system doesn’t allow you to have it all. You guys remember my old story of driving up to my airplane in a muddy 5-year-old Bronco. I had media with me and they said, ‘This makes no sense. You’re driving up to an airplane that you have in a 5-year-old Bronco.’ And I said, ‘Well, it makes all the sense in the world. You can’t have it all. This is how you have an airplane is to drive a 5-year-old Bronco.’ Something has to give.”

What had to give was Smith. In Jones’ eyes, Smith will be an “outstanding success” after football. But, as a member of the Cowboys, it was time to move on with younger, cheaper, healthier and perhaps better. So, the Cowboys released Smith on Tuesday. The Packers signed him on Thursday to a minimum-salary contract.

For a former Pro Bowler, he’s got a lot to prove in showing that he’s anywhere close to an elite player.

“You know, 26 years old, got a lot of game left to play, especially at a high level,” he said. “Anytime I touch the field, that’s the goal – to add value.”


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