EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – A week ago, Jaylon Smith was an NFL player without a team. Released by two different franchises in less than a month, the veteran linebacker was working out in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and hoping another team would give him a shot.
Last Friday, the Giants did, signing Smith to their practice squad. On Saturday, he was added to the roster as a COVID-19 replacement. And on Sunday, Smith played 17 snaps and had four tackles (three solo) against the Dallas Cowboys, who drafted him in 2016 and cut him on Oct. 6. Monday, he was formally signed to the Giants roster.
How, exactly, did Smith make the meteoric rise from unemployed to contributing linebacker in three days?
"I'm a pro," he said. "I'm a pro's pro, a guy that's always going to be prepared and ready for the opportunity, so that's really what it was. I've been playing this game since I was seven years old, so getting in here learning the system. The coaches are doing a great job at giving me the basics and allowing me to go out and just play my game."
Asked to appraise his performance, Smith said, "I did well. There's so much more to improve, and that's the focus this week, getting the playbook all the way down and getting ready to get after the Eagles this weekend (Sunday in Philadelphia)."
Smith, 6-2 and 240 pounds, was considered a virtual lock to be a first-round draft choice before tearing two knee ligaments playing in the final game for Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. The Cowboys selected him early in the second round, No. 34 overall, and Smith sat out his first pro season rehabbing his knee.
He returned to the field in 2017 and did not miss a game for four seasons, starting each one in the final three years. In 2019, he collected 142 tackles (83 solo) and was selected to the Pro Bowl. Last year, he tallied a career-high 154 tackles, including 24 in two games against the Giants.
Smith's career took a different trajectory this year. After his release by Dallas, Smith played two games for the Green Bay Packers, who let him go on Nov. 2
"It's a humbling experience," Smith said. "It's my first year really dealing with the politics and business side of the National Football League, but I'm a guy that I've been through so much, nothing can stop me. I'm a guy that's going to continue to work, continue to learn. Just a humble servant. But a guy that's young (26) and got a lot of ball left playing at a high level. It was a blessing to be able to show that versus the team that drafted me last weekend. Now, it's just about moving forward."
After leaving Green Bay, Smith moved back to Fort Wayne, where he worked out at Traction Athletic Performance. "(The trainers were) just doing a great job at keeping me in shape, keeping me fine-tuned for when the opportunity presented itself," Smith said.
Like so many players this season, Smith got his chance because others were sidelined by COVID-19. Last week, linebackers Oshane Ximines and Cam Brown were placed on the COVID reserve list. The Giants reached out to Smith to fill one of their roster vacancies.
"It was a blessing," Smith said. "I got the call from my agent saying that the Giants were calling and asking about me. I was actually working out when they called me, and my phone was dead, so I didn't get a chance to answer right away, but I hopped in the sauna afterward and got the news. So, I headed out and I'm here. It feels great."
It felt even better on his second snap against the Cowboys when Smith cut across the field and dropped running back Tony Pollard after a two-yard gain on what might otherwise have been a long run after a short pass. Smith made the tackle near the Dallas sideline and promptly looked at his former teammates and coaches as if to say, "I'm back."
"A blessing to be out there playing the game I love," he said. "Being able to make a dynamic play on my second play out there, it's just a great opportunity getting a chance to hit somebody. It just happened to be my former teammate and that was a good thing. I got up a little rowdy. All respect though. All respect."
Smith is wearing jersey No. 45, which his running back brother, Rod, another former Cowboy, wore in stints with the Giants in the 2019 offseason and for three weeks on the practice squad in 2020.
"It's a blessing being able to wear my brother's jersey," he said. "He spent some time here in New York wearing 45. It's all in the family. He's training and he's ready, staying patient. For me, it's just about going out there and competing at a high level and adding value to the team."
That mission is already accomplished.
View some of the top photos from the career of veteran linebacker Jaylon Smith.
*The Giants announced after practice that Kadarius Toney was activated off the Reserve/COVID-19 list. The rookie wide receiver, who had quad and oblique injuries before going on the reserve list, has not played since Nov. 22 at Tampa Bay.
Wide receiver coach Tyke Tolbert, asked if he had hope Toney will be able to play against the Eagles Sunday, said, "I've got my fingers, toes and eyes crossed that he'll be ready to come back."
Coach Joe Judge said two players still on the list, Ximines and defensive back J.R. Reed joined Toney in returning today to the Quest Diagnostics Training Center. But Tolbert might have to keep his extremities crossed for a while.
"All three of them will work with the trainers at least to start practice to see where they're at, to ramp them up," Judge said prior to practice. "We'll see if there's any opportunity on the back end of practice even with some kind of a walkthrough with the team or where they would be. We'd have to remove them from the list and activate them to the roster to include them in team activities. First priority is to see where they are physically. Obviously, the trainers will check with them in terms of just how they feel. They've cleared all those tests, they've tested negative to get back in the building, but the bigger part will be getting them out here and seeing where they are from a standpoint of inactivity for the last week-and-a-half as well as the symptoms they had to deal with."
Like Toney, cornerback Adoree' Jackson was sidelined with an injury (quad) before going on the reserve list. That increases the degree of difficulty to get them ready to play in a short amount of time.
"That's definitely a different challenge because you've got to consider not only coming off of the inactivity and the symptoms, (but) you also have to consider where they're at with the injury," Judge said. "They haven't really been able to be with our trainers, they haven't been able to do a lot of the rehab and activity on the field. That's just a natural setback right there. Just not having them out here, that's an issue you've got to deal with."
"You're concerned about guys like Adoree' that are you playing with fire a little bit if you try to get them back and get them ramped up within that one-day report of getting directly into the game? So, there are some things we have to consider with that. We are able to check in with the players and see if they're doing anything as far as just physically moving around, but we can't advise them to do anything until we know they're symptom-free and it's okay to clear them through some kind of a ramp-up."
*Guard Ben Bredeson (ankle) was the only Giants player to miss practice today. Rookie running back Gary Brightwell, who didn't participate yesterday, worked on a limited basis today.
The six players who were limited yesterday were in the same category today: running back Saquon Barkley (ankle), fullback Cullen Gillaspia (shin), tight end Kyle Rudolph (ankle), tackle Andrew Thomas (ankle), and defensive linemen Leonard Williams (triceps) and Austin Johnson (foot).