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Mac Engel: Why Jaylon Smith's flashy tackle stats mean nothing

Fort Worth Star-Telegram — By Mac Engel Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Oct. 12-- In another example of how misleading and worthless statistics can sometimes be, Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith ranks 11th in the NFL in tackles (through Wednesday).

That feat is simultaneously amazing and disappointing.

It's amazing Smith has been on the field for 41 tackles. It's disappointing that of those 41 tackles, only one has mattered.

The Cowboys are 2-3 and there is plenty to like, starting with the play of the quarterback, to the courage of the Cowboys' commitment to creating the perception of honoring the flag.

After that, there is plenty to dislike, starting with a defense that is far worse than projected. Those initial projections were not exactly flattering, either. The team ranks 21st in total defense, and 29th in points allowed.

The Cowboys scored 30 points in each of the last two games at home and lost. Do you know how hard that is to achieve?

One of the reasons is they are weak up the middle, which includes interior linemen, safety and linebacker. The absence of Sean Lee to a hamstring issue the last two weeks makes them vulnerable, because right now Jaylon Smith can't play.

The inclusion of Smith to this defense has done nothing, and it's not his fault. Until December, or maybe even September 2018, Jaylon Smith gets a pass.

He should not be playing this much. He has started every game this season, when he should be a spot duty player.

Smith shredded his knee in his final game at Notre Dame on New Year's Day in 2016, which is why he was a second-round draftee rather than the top-five pick he had been projected.

He did not play last season, thus making 2017 his real rookie year.

So he's a rookie, and he is still coming off a major knee injury. To say he's a bust, as I did a few months ago, is obviously premature. It's a testament to his work ethic he's made it this far.

It's also a testament to the Cowboys needing him to play.

According to the fantasy football website fantasypros.com, Smith has played 260 snaps this season for an average of just over 50 per game. Those figures are not good.

Jaylon Smith is a JAG (just a guy), and the Cowboys defense has a surplus of them. He's also a JAG who is clearly not 100 percent. His leg may never allow him to be the top-five player he was projected, but we don't know that yet.

And, even if he had been healthy, guys selected in the top five miss all the time. Healthy first-round picks are often just JAGs.

To date he has 41 tackles and one forced fumble. No sacks. No quarterback hurries. No pass breakups. No fumble recoveries. The fumble he forced against the New York Giants in Week 1 was recovered by the Giants.

I looked at every one of the plays he was credited with a tackle or an assist, and but one made a difference: that forced fumble. Eventually he will have to make plays that cause disruption, or are at, or close to, the line of scrimmage. That has not happened yet.

What he has done is collect a lot of tackles. It's where these tackles are happening is the issue.

The plays on which he has been credited with a tackle have gone for an average of 6.7 yards. Seven have gone for 10 or more yards.

None of his plays has been a stop at the line of scrimmage. Two have been for 1-yard gains. Seven have been for 3 yards or less.

There is a reason why his ranking on Pro Football Focus is the least-good on the team.

This is not an anti-Jaylon Smith rant. That's not possible.

He is infectiously optimistic. Spend two minutes with him and you will be convinced he could scale Everest with an angry grizzly bear attached to his back. This is a man you want to succeed.

He's only 23, cut from limestone and his credentials at Notre Dame were impressive. It's in there.

The question for the Cowboys: Can he get there? They are going to give him every opportunity to do that this season, even if it is against the best interests of the defense or his career.

He should not be out there this often, even if he has the 11th most tackles in the NFL.

Because once you get past that rankings, you'll see the numbers aren't much.

In nearly every case, it's on the player. Not on this one.

For a while, give Jaylon Smith a pass.

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