Should the Giants be interested in Jaylon Smith or Stephon Gilmore?

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Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Two veterans surprisingly hit the market

The New York Giants brass is always saying that they are exploring every avenue to improve the team. It just so happens that two veteran defenders, linebacker Jaylon Smith and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, were surprisingly cut by the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots, respectively, over the last 24 hours.

And while fans might be riding high on the Giants’ offensive performance against the New Orleans Saints, the play of the defense thus far has to be a concern. Not only are opposing quarterbacks finding it far too easy to move the ball through the air — completing roughly 75 percent of their passes — but they aren’t stopping the run like they did a year ago. While the defensive line isn’t as stout as it was a year ago, the loss of MLB Blake Martinez has to play a significant role as well

Should the Giants be interested in Smith and Gilmore?

Once upon a time — back in the bygone era of 2015 — Jaylon Smith was my absolute favorite prospect to watch in college football. Not only was he an electric athlete at the second level, elite in just about everything a linebacker needed to do, but he also clearly had a “through the roof” football IQ. Watching the tape of that season was a rare joy — until he suffered a catastrophic knee injury in Notre Dame’s bowl game that year. Not only did he suffer ligament damage, but also nerve damage that put his whole football future in doubt.

The Cowboys still selected Smith in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft (continuing Jerry Jones’ tradition of drafting “my guys”) and even waited a full year for him to get on the field. Their faith and patience paid off, and Smith played at a Pro Bowl level for three years, earning a big contract extension in 2019.

But that isn’t who Smith is anymore. Though he’s only 26, Smith just isn’t the player he was even a year ago. He can’t run like he used to, nor can he cover nearly as much of the field. So far this year, Smith has just 10 tackles, no sacks, and no tackles for loss. Likewise, he has seen his completion percentage allowed skyrocket from a 3-year low of 71.2 percent to 90 percent.

ESPN reports from unnamed sources that the Cowboys attempted to move Smith in a trade.

“According to sources, they had some trade discussions with teams about a deal for Smith and were willing to eat a good portion of his $7.2 million base salary, but nothing ever really came close to happening.”

Ultimately, ESPN concluded (and I agree with), the decision to release Smith is about his decline and his contract, as well as a desire to get Keanu Neal and rookie Jabril Cox onto the field.

The question the Giants should be asking isn’t whether they can add a Pro Bowl caliber linebacker in October. But rather, could they make even an incremental improvement over Reggie Ragland or Tae Crowder? At this point I don’t know whether a diminished Jaylon Smith is an improvement over the back-ups currently on the field.

Here is what RJ Ochoa of SB Nation’s Blogging The Boys told us about Smith:

“Jaylon Smith remains an incredible story. The fact that the he made it to his sixth NFL season is a testament to his own will and drive.

“Obviously many people know what I am talking about, but in case you don’t you will recall that Jaylon was projected to be a top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft before suffering a horrific knee injury during his final game at Notre Dame during the Fiesta Bowl. His draft stock plummeted and many wondered if he would ever play football again.

“The Dallas Cowboys took a chance on Jaylon and drafted him with the 34th overall pick that year, much to the speculation of many. Jaylon effectively redshirted his rookie year of 2016 and returned to the field in 2017 for what was his true first season in the NFL. There were growing pains that year, but as he was playing football for the first time in a long time, after intense recovery, patience was a necessity.

“That’s when 2018 happened. Alongside then-rookie Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon flourished. He looked like the player lining up for the Fighting Irish and it seemed apparent that the Cowboys had actually done it. Smith was named to the Pro Bowl and life seemed set at linebacker for the next half decade at least.

“The Cowboys rewarded Jaylon with a contract extension in the early days of the 2019 season. During his press conference Jaylon spoke about how much the Cowboys meant to him, how he recognized the worldwide level of the brand, and pledged to continue caring for his past and present communities.

“It was the brand issue that wore thin with Cowboys fans during the 2019 season. All throughout the year – as the Cowboys defense struggled – Jaylon seemed to prioritize celebrating himself regardless of the circumstances (so literally when bad things would be happening for the defense as a whole). His patented “swipe” celebration became a point of frustration for Cowboys fans as did his Pro Bowl campaign that he led on social media, tweeting and asking for votes after the Cowboys would lose games as one example.

“The 2020 season was broken for the Cowboys in a number of ways and the defense was one of their worst assets. Jaylon played poorly and very infamously challenged people to “watch the film” when he was asked if he thought he would be on the team at season’s end (after the New York Giants beat the Cowboys in Week 17). Dallas responded by drafting Micah Parsons in the first round and Jabril Cox in the fourth and the math just no longer seemed to add up.

“Over the last few weeks the Cowboys have had Keanu Neal on the Reserve/COVID-19 list but he is now back and able to contribute. The reality is that while there is no financial benefit to keeping Jaylon that he is the team’s fifth linebacker at best and doesn’t play special teams. Something had to give.”

There’s also the question of CB Stephon Gilmore, who was released Wednesday morning by the Patriots.

It wasn’t that long ago that Gilmore was the best cornerback in the NFL — he was a key piece in the Patriots Super Bowl winning defense and the Defensive Player Of The Year in 2019. At 31, and in his 11th season in the NFL, Gilmore isn’t quite the player he once was. However, he is still a very good press-man cover cornerback. His release seems to have much more to do with contract tensions and concerns over the health following quad surgery (which landed him on the PUP list) than a decline on the field.

The Giants ties to the Patriots are well-known at this point. Joe Judge knows Gilmore, both as a teammate and as an opponent, and that could make the Giants an attractive destination. Gilmore allowed 57 percent completion and just 1 touchdown in 2020, and should still be an effective player if he’s healthy.

Personally, I think the Giants should bring both in for a look. They don’t lose anything by doing their due diligence and it’s possible that their diminished skills — not to mention the veteran experience and football IQ — could fit into the Giants’ defensive picture. Adding Smith or Gilmore’s smarts and experience to a defense which has had too many breakdowns could be worth it, even if they don’t present any kind of athletic upgrade.

UPDATE:

Patriots traded Stephon Gilmore to the Panthers for a 2023 sixth-round pick.

— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 6, 2021

The Giants face Gilmore and the Panthers Oct. 24 at MetLife Stadium.

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