EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – When training camps began last July, not one of the 32 NFL teams invited Jaylon Smith to join them.
Smith was still jobless when the season began in September.
On Sept. 20, that changed. The Giants signed him to their practice squad. A linebacker, Smith played four games with two starts at the end of the 2021 season for the Giants after being released by both Dallas and Green Bay.
He was signed to the active roster on Oct. 1. Smith made his 2022 debut the following day against Chicago, his first start the next week vs. Green Bay in London and has now become one of the Giants' most valuable and versatile defensive players.
Smith's first two starts this season were at the Will, or weakside linebacker position. His last two were at the Mike, or middle linebacker.
"I've had success at Mike and Will in my career," said Smith, a six-year veteran. "Easy transition, it doesn't matter. Anything the coaches want from me, I'm going to do."
Smith's move has contributed to a significant upgrade of the run defense. In the Giants' first seven games, including four in which Smith played and two he started, the Giants surrendered an average of 144 yards a game, 5.7 yards a carry and eight runs of more than 20 yards. Since Smith moved inside, the numbers are 94 yards a game, 4.3 yards an attempt and one long run, a 44-yarder by Houston's Dameon Pierce last week.
Aside from that long run, two standout rookies – Seattle's Kenneth Walker III and Pierce – totaled 101 yards on 34 carries, a 3.0-yard average, in the Giants' last two games.
"Jaylon is a very conscientious player," inside linebackers coach John Egorugwu said. "He studies. He understands. Very, very smart. Physical. All those things that you need from your Mike in the run game, and he's done a good job of it.
"He lives to be physical from play to play. And he's smart. Perfectly diagnosed, you can see it. And he's a veteran. He's a guy that's played a lot of games and seen a lot of football in this league. He also provides that veteran leadership in our group."
What changes for Smith when he moves inside?
"Just the lens – the lens in which I see the game," he said. "Playing Will is more of an outside/in perspective, whereas at the Mike, you're right in the middle of it. I'm blessed to have a lot of experience at both. The more experience you get, the more you understand systems in the game overall. I'm just a student of the game."
Smith took it as a personal affront when the Baltimore Ravens gashed the Giants' defense for 211 rushing yards on Oct. 16 and then the Jacksonville Jaguars for 142. The opposition found the sledding much tougher when Smith stepped into the middle the following week in Seattle.
"Being a linebacker, it's your job to lead that charge in making sure that everybody's locked and loaded," Smith said. "The D-line knows what they're supposed to do, the back seven know what they're supposed to do. Playing that Mike position, you're kind of the quarterback of the defense. I take pride in it.
"Our attention to detail, our focus and our understanding of how important it is to stop the run, it's important. So, we got to continue to hound that."
The Giants obviously aren't announcing their plans for Sunday's home game against Detroit. But since the Lions are 11th in the NFL with 129.8 rushing yards a game and field two outstanding runners in D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams, chances are good Smith will again be the hub of the Giants' defense.
"I think (defensive coordinator) Wink (Martindale) says it all the time: this is a position-less defense," Egorugwu said. "We're constantly looking at all the linebacker positions and understanding that at any point in time, depending on what we're looking at going into that game plan, they can be playing a position that can help us or be effective that week."
"Wherever they put me out there, I'm going to make a difference," Smith said. "Having success in this league, I'm able to continue to show I'm still an elite player. So, that's the whole thing: we've got to come together as a team. It's all about the 'W.'"
View rare photos from the all-time series between the New York Giants and Detroit Lions.