It almost feels like the Giants stashed linebacker Jaylon Smith in hiding.
Smith showed some playmaking promise in the final four games (two starts) last season but got washed away as one of 25 in-house free agents that the new regime did not re-sign in the offseason. Months passed with nothing materializing from a few phone calls with interested teams and soon NFL training camps came and went with Smith watching from the outside for the first time in his career.
“Naturally, the ego speaks,” Smith said when asked if he was angry to be unsigned. “But I know I can still play the game at a high level. I know I’m still one of the best linebackers in the league. It’s just [being] granted opportunity.”
The right opportunity was a familiar one, arranged with input from Giants director of player personnel Tim McDonnell, who was on staff at Notre Dame during Smith’s All-American college career. The Giants hosted Smith for a workout on Sept. 18, added him to the practice squad two days later and signed him to the active roster — rather than elevating him on game days as they have with other veterans — on the eve of facing the Chicago Bears.
“I was training my a– off,” said Smith, a former Pro Bowler for the Cowboys. “I’m in Year 7, but I’m 27 [years old]. I’m still young. I still have a lot of ball left to be able to play the game at a high level. Just taking all the success and adversity I’ve had over my career and just continuing to pour it out. The Giants brought me in and loved what they saw.”
There was a lot to like in his season debut, too. In his first competitive setting since Jan. 9, Smith made seven tackles and played 31 snaps, which speaks to his level of conditioning.
“Whatever situation they put me in, anything they want from me, I’m going to do,” Smith said. “Everything I’ve gotten is earned. That’s all coach told me: Come in and earn it. I know I can add a lot to this team. It’s about patience and being a steward of the game.”
Perhaps it is no coincidence that fellow inside linebacker Tae Crowder had the best game of his career (11 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble) lined up next to Smith. Crowder followed Smith through the hole on a double A-gap blitz and wound up with his sack after the running back blocked Smith.
“If I’m going to battle, I want Tae Crowder with me,” Smith said. “There’s so much knowledge I have to be able to give to the young bucks. That [sack] was a beauty. I can’t wait to see that on film.”
The Giants have been searching for answers next to Crowder at inside linebacker since rookie Darrian Beavers suffered a season-ending torn ACL in the preseason and veteran Blake Martinez was surprisingly released just before the regular season. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s help-wanted ad after the Giants missed nine tackles against the run alone in Week 3 was seeking “guys who can run, hit and tackle.”
Smith fit the description perfectly with the bonus of 6-foot-2, 240-pound size, Martindale said. Crowder said he took Smith’s addition as “another piece” to help the team, not a direct challenge for him to play better.
“He’s very detailed,” Crowder said. “Being at home, you can see that he obviously wanted to get back into football. Just the energy he brings coming back, and wanting to be great and wanting to do things right, it showed at the game.”
Austin Calitro started Week 1 but was a healthy scratch against the Bears. Rookie Micah McFadden started over Smith in Week 4 but played fewer snaps. Smith’s role should increase, especially against run-dominant offenses.
“I’m going to be here a little longer now [than] last year,” Smith said. “I love the energy. I love the vibe. There’s a lot more pep in our step. You have a lot of young guys believing who haven’t achieved a lot of success here the last few years. Them getting a taste of what winning looks like, all of that good stuff matters.”