It’s not easy being an NFL fan. Up to 16 games a week with over a thousand players taking over a thousand snaps. How are you meant to know when a player in a small market team is playing lights-out, especially when there are no gaudy stats that stick out to prove it? Watching every game is damn near impossible, while breaking down every player on every play is a task that requires a substantial team of people to do.
Well that’s where we can help as we’re here to make life easier for you by finding those unheralded stars and bringing them to your attention. That means looking past the big names getting all the attention and this week I’m turning my attention to a player who has excelled for Jacksonville, always catching the eye of the PFF staff. I am, of course, talking about the Jaguars’ do-everything linebacker, Daryl Smith.
After spending four years at Georgia Tech it wasn’t too much of a surprise when the Jacksonville Jaguars made Smith the 39th overall pick of the 2004 draft. The fifth linebacker selected in a class bulging with talent (D.J. Williams, Karlos Dansby and Jonathan Vilma all went ahead of him, as did Teddy Lehman), Smith would go onto start 13 games in his rookie season and has missed only three games since. It’s led to him becoming the franchise leader in tackles, but the truth is Smith is about so much more than tackles. You need to go back to 2009 to really start to appreciate just how good a player he is.
I’ll preface this by saying PFF started in 2008, so we haven’t examined the early career of Daryl Smith in great detail. But his 2008 year was hardly remarkable as he switched between inside and outside linebacker. It earned him a +0.4 grade on the year and offered no indication of a superb 2009 that was to follow. In 2009, and despite the Jaguars switching between a 3-4 and a 4-3 where Smith was used as an inside and outside linebacker in both schemes, the former second-round pick excelled to earn our highest grade of any linebacker. It wasn’t just one element he shined in, but every facet of the game: he got plenty of pressure (two sacks, three hits and 22 hurries on 149 pass rushes), was sixth in the league for defensive stops, and made plays in coverage (averaging just 7 yards allowed per reception while breaking up four balls and intercepting another). It was such a good season it angered (but not surprised) me when Smith wasn’t mentioned in any Pro Bowl chatter when his performance warranted All-Pro consideration.
The Down Year
Still, the foundation for praise had been laid and now Smith would build on his career year, right? Wrong, 2010 proved to be a letdown as a follow-up to his 2009. Now, some of this owes to some unfortunate matchups. Take Week 2 for example where the Jags either overestimated Smith’s abilities, or underestimated how good Antonio Gates was (depending upon your viewpoint), as the Chargers’ tight end picked up two touchdowns on a man who would eventually finish 2010 as our 11th-ranked 4-3 OLB. A disappointing ranking after such a strong 2009, but the finish to the season was as encouraging as the start was depressing; five games graded in the green (all of them +2.2 or above) in the last seven weeks of the season. He still had it.
This all leads us to the present day and the true motivation for this article. I’m normally not a huge fan of breaking down some good plays by a player because I’m a firm believer that with the right selection of plays you can make anyone look like an all-star. But, with that said I’ll try to add some context and some numbers into the different areas of Smith’s success to show just how good a year he’s having.
Key Stat: Has the sixth-most defensive stops in the entire league.
Signature Play: Week 5, Q4 10:19. Smith lines up as the SLB on the left side with the Bengals in a shotgun formation. The ball is snapped and handed off to Bernard Scott, while LG Nate Livings pulls to the right with RT Andre Smith moving to the second level. Smith surges at the point of attack, moves inside Livings who attempts to hold the Jaguar and allow Scott to cut back inside him. Despite the hold, Smith is able to get a hand on and bring down the running back for a short gain.
Analysis: What’s not to like about Smith? He’s extremely active around the line of scrimmage, does a good job of getting off blocks when linemen get to the next level, and is a real handful for tight ends trying to seal him off at the edge of the play. About the only time I can remember being disappointed with him was in Week 6 against the Steelers. David Johnson caused Smith some problems that day when he was able to pick up a head of steam from the fullback spot. Even then, he came back by working over the Pittsburgh tight ends.
Key Stat: Tied with Patrick Willis and Rolando McClain for the most combined pass deflections and interceptions of all linebackers (seven).
Signature Play: Week 3, Q3 8:11. The Jaguars are in a zone defense that sees Smith line up over Legedu Naanee (SRWR). Cam Newton is in the gun when the ball is snapped and looks to his left before coming back to the middle of the field to try and hit Jeremy Shockey on a hook route. Noticing what is happening, Smith drives on the ball before Newton has even throw it, undercutting the pass attempt and making a diving attempt at an interception that results in the ball being batted up. Great recognition, and even better reaction.
Analysis: 26 times Smith has been thrown at this year, with the result being 19 completions and just 121 yards. That’s just 6.4 yards per attempt (the second lowest figure of all 4-3 OLBs) and just 73.1% of passes complete (seventh lowest figure of all 4-3 OLBs targeted at least 25 times). The numbers really do tell a story with Smith who can track tight ends downfield and drive on receivers when the ball is coming their way. Great football instincts.
Key Stat: Three sacks, three further hits, and one more hurry on 31 pass rushes.
Signature Play: Week 7, Q4 12:08. With the Ravens in shotgun, Smith lines up close to the line of scrimmage just on the outside of the left defensive end’s hip. When the ball is snapped, Smith darts inside where his blitz is picked up by Ray Rice. I say picked up, but in reality Smith pushes Rice away and to the floor before wrapping up Flacco for a sack.
Analysis: Smith hasn’t had all that many opportunities to rush the passer this year, but he’s done a good job of turning his blitzes into sacks and hits. Sure, most of them have come unblocked, but he’s still making an impact when given the chance.
Top of His Game
While some linebackers make their reputation making plenty of tackles, and others enjoy the benefits of quarterbacks throwing the ball into their arms, Daryl Smith goes by unnoticed. Maybe if Jacksonville won more games or maybe if Smith played in a bigger market things would be different. But they’re not, and instead, one of the best linebackers in the game today remains underappreciated. A true do-it-all linebacker, Smith is our third-ranked 4-3 OLB on the year, behind only Von Miller and Kamerion Wimbley, both of whom have earned a large portion of their ranking playing as defensive ends in nickel packages. To say he’s playing well at the moment would be an understatement.
So, while Daryl Smith may not have the flashiest stats, don’t sleep on the Jaguars’ outside linebacker. He’s making plays in whatever position Jacksonville puts him in. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who has watched him over the past two-and-a-half years, but maybe it’s time more people started to realize this. Until then, I’ll just use Smith as my leading example as to why not being instantly recognizable doesn’t mean you’re not one of the best players in the NFL.