Even the worst teams have exceptional players. A few weeks ago we took at look at Bilal Powell, the chronically underused and underrated running back for the New York Jets. Obviously, Powell is not the only under-the-radar player in the league who may not have received his due praise and attention, either by his team, the media or fans beyond their own team This series will look at some of these guys, especially those whose rising star is possibly hindered or overshadowed by being on a poorly performing team. First, we check out the Jacksonville Jaguars’ linebacker Telvin Smith; a prime example of a player whose inclusion on a struggling roster, means his talent and performance are both underrated and under-reported.
Linebacker Telvin Smith was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft, following a successful college career at Florida State. His draft profile described him in glowing terms as a fast-flowing, instinctive, run-and-hit weakside linebacker capable of producing at a high level. Even at this stage, he was described as having All-Pro potential, as long as he was able to bulk up to withstand the rigours of blocking in the NFL . However, since being drafted three years ago, Smith has played in all but two games for the Jags, only missing weeks 16 and 17 of the 2015 season with a shoulder and finger injury; clearly a sign of his resilience against pro opponents. In that time he has racked up an impressive 350 tackles, four interceptions and 5.5 sacks.
Why is he underrated?
Thought of initially as too light too hold up as a 3-down linebacker, once he found his feet in the NFL after a few shaky weeks, Smith has proven extremely effective against both the pass and the run. In his rookie year, from week 7 to week 17, he achieved an overall grade from Pro Football Focus of +4.4, ranking him 15th out of 38 4-3 outside linebackers. He helped the Jaguars end the 2014 season as the seventh best defense in terms of total yards allowed, despite their dismal 3-13 record. He has continued to produce consistently similar numbers each year. In 2015, he was ranked as the NFL’s fifth most productive linebacker. In the 2016 season Smith totaled 118 combined tackles, enough to rank him at number 14 in the league amongst all linebackers and fourth amongst outside linebackers.
Indeed, 2016 is not the first season that Smith has been described as underrated. In 2015 CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco included him as the Jaguar’s choice on his list of underrated players for each of the 32 teams. At the time Prisco said:
“This run-and-chase linebacker is in the mold of former Tampa Bay Hall of Fame player Derrick Brooks. Smith played at 220 pounds last season, but is a little bigger this season. His speed is such a weapon. Watch him fly to the football now that he knows the defenses and assignments better.”
His consistency of production year on year and ability to use his pace to disrupt offenses, means that on another, more successful team, Smith would be grabbing many more headlines than he currently is. The problem is, for teams such as the Jaguars, who looked so promising on paper but once again quickly found themselves struggling, the headlines focus on the problems, not the bright spots.
Success has come despite heartbreak and difficulty for Smith. His brother, Brian, was tragically killed in a shooting in Georgia in November 2016, a situation which left him understandably broken. This, combined with an overall poor season for the Jaguars (they once again finished 3-13 including nine straight losses on the trot), makes his performance even more impressive. Finding a consistent and effective outside linebacker is a tough challenge in the NFL and Jacksonville will likely seek to avoid Smith reaching free agency at the end of his rookie contract. With a new head coach in Doug Marrone, who brought a new motivation to the ailing Jags team in the final weeks of 2016, and a raft of young defensive talent, expect to hear more of Telvin Smith in 2017.
photo credit: www.jaguars.com