Jacquies Smith's Wild Ride to Become the NFL's Best Player You've Never Heard of

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistOctober 8, 2015

AP Photo/Don Wright

By no means can we perform a scientific study of one's popularity merely by using Twitter, but consider this: Taylor Swift has 64.5 million Twitter followers, Drew Brees has 2.3 million followers, St. Louis Rams punter Johnny Hekker has 24,000, New York Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie has 6,400, and NFL sack leader DeMarcus Ware has 309,000.

If you're a celebrity or a professional athlete using social media, you're almost guaranteed to have a huge following regardless of your status or position.

But what if I told you the man who currently leads the NFC in sacks and led the entire league in that category through three weeks has just 4,600 people following him on Twitter?

That's as good an indication as any that Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Jacquies Smith is flying below the NFL radar.

The 25-year-old has four sacks through four games, which many might construe as an aberration if not for the fact he's quietly been starting in Tampa since midway through the 2014 season or the fact he was so good late last season that the Bucs felt comfortable letting go of higher-profile pass-rushers Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn.

Or the fact Smith was so good late last year that Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune called him the best defensive end on the Bucs roster.

Or the fact Smith actually has 10.5 sacks in his last 13 games, which ranks tied for fifth in all of football during that span. And every one of the nine other players with nine or more sacks since that point have played more snaps than him.

Most sacks since Week 9 of the 2014 season
PlayerSacksGamesSnaps
1. J.J. Watt17.512819
2. Justin Houston15.013915
3. Elvis Dumervil12.012555
4. Clay Matthews11.512742
5. Jacquies Smith10.513551
5. Robert Quinn10.513682
5. Aaron Donald10.513695
5. Connor Barwin10.513876
9. Mario Williams10.012721
10. Jason Pierre-Paul9.09579
Pro Football Reference/Pro Football Focus

Where did Smith come from, and how'd he become the best NFL player you've never heard of? It was a journey that contained more than a few potholes, roadblocks and speed bumps.

Those obstacles were scattered throughout the United States and Canada, taking Smith from a destitute neighborhood in Dallas to Columbia, Missouri; to Miami and to Hamilton, Ontario; to New York, to Buffalo and finally to Tampa.

By the time Smith gained stability as an NFL player, he'd seen two of his football seasons derailed by elbow injuries, he'd fought to escape a Big 12 shadow cast by teammate Aldon Smith, he'd overcome a disappointing performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, he'd gone undrafted, he'd been cut by 75 percent of the teams in the AFC East, and he'd left and returned to the country.

It takes a lot of resolve to keep pushing when you're trying to cut it on your fifth professional football team in three years, but considering Smith's Dallas-area roots, it shouldn't surprise anybody that he has prevailed.

Growing up in the infamous South Oak Cliff neighborhood in Dallas, Smith had to overcome life challenges far before encountering those related to the game of football. And the challenges weren't just on the streets, because his father, Jimmy, was incarcerated for the majority of his childhood.

Fortunately for Smith, who was raised primarily by his grandmother, Opal, he still had plenty of support from her, his mother (also named Opal) and his late grandfather, Herbert Jones, who inspired a seven-year-old Jacquies to start playing football in the first place.

"A lot of people aren't able to make it out," Smith told Bleacher Report. "I've seen some of the best athletes in my neighborhood who don't generally make it out because they've gotten [into trouble]."

He credits his family and his coaches for instilling in him a work-first attitude—the type of attitude that had him delivering phone books and bagging and stacking newspapers during part-time graveyard shifts as a high schooler—but it's clear he wouldn't be the sack maestro he is today if not for Jones.

According to Smith, Jones, who coached future basketball stars such as Dennis Rodman and Larry Johnson at the AAU level, was an influential sports figure in that community. And he devoted much of his time and energy to his grandson's football, basketball and track and field endeavors.

So much so that Smith remembers receiving calls from Jones while he was in the locker room during halftime.

"That's just the way he was," said Smith of the U.S. Army veteran. "I would talk to him before I'd talk to the coaches."

Smith was dealt another blow when Jones died in 2003, which is when he decided to move in full-time with his widowed grandmother. With Jones gone and Jimmy locked up, Smith spent four years dominating as a South Oak Cliff High School defensive end without a father figure cheering him on. But he never takes the field without thinking of his grandfather.

"I go out there and try to play with his spirit," he said. "That's why I always drop to a knee and point to the sky before games, to honor him. I want to go out and play and do good while he's up there watching."

Jimmy Smith was released from prison four years ago, and according to Jacquies, the two now have "a great relationship." Jimmy, who is now finishing up ministry school while preaching in Tyler, Texas, first saw his son play live during Jacquies' senior season at the University of Missouri, but he's making up for lost time. Two weeks ago, he was at NRG Stadium in Houston as Jacquies suited up for a 64-snap, four-tackle performance against the Texans.

"I'm not one to hold grudges," he said. "We all make mistakes."

But it was his grandmother who helped him jump his first football-related hurdle way back before he was recruited by Michigan State, Texas A&M, Nebraska, Kentucky and Missouri, among others. During his sophomore year at South Oak Cliff, he suffered an elbow injury that he says tore a very important season to pieces.

"I remember the doctor told me I wasn't going to play, and I literally sat in the corner and cried for like an hour," he recalled. "And my grandmother just sat there and talked to me. She's always the first person I call or go to whenever I'm having a tough time or I need answers. She's the glue of the family, so my relationship with her is probably second to none."

COLUMBIA, MO. - NOVEMBER 13: Jacquies Smith #3 of the Missouri Tigers in action against the Kansas State Wildcats at Faurot Field/Memorial Stadium on November 13, 2010 in Columbia, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Everything is relative, which is why with those experiences in mind, it's easier to understand why Smith kept fighting to earn an FBS scholarship during his next two seasons at South Oak Cliff. And why he overcame a slow start behind a deep defensive line at Missouri.

"He was a slow starter when he got here, too," said Mizzou head coach Gary Pinkel, comparing Smith's college career to his NFL tenure thus far. "He's a guy that just got better each and every year he was here."

Jacquies Smith: College stats
YearTotal tacklesTackles for lossSacks
20084631.0
20093941.5
201035105.5
20113995.0
Sports-Reference.com

His earlier trials also explain why he wasn't fazed when another elbow injury damaged his draft stock as a senior at Missouri in 2011. With Aldon Smith off to the NFL, that was supposed to be Jacquies' breakout season, but he was limited that year and was held to five sacks. As a result, he faced an uphill battle in the predraft process and—after a lukewarm combine performance—found himself without an NFL home after the seventh round had ended.

"I was honestly shocked," said Smith of not getting drafted, "because I had received a pretty decent grade, but it just didn't work out. I was shocked going through draft day and seeing the other guys' names called before me. It was just another speed bump."

His numbers didn't jump off the page, and his size might have been a factor as well; at 6'3", 253 pounds, lots of scouts saw him as a little bit of a "tweener." But when trying to identify what cost Smith the most coming out of college, his agent, Josh Arnold, points to that elbow injury and less-than-ideal results at the combine, where he ran an uncharacteristically slow 4.81-second 40-yard dash.

Dave Martin/Associated Press

"I don't think he had the greatest combine workout, but it's one of those situations where a guy can have a non-elite day," said Arnold, who first pinpointed Smith as a potential client when watching him as a junior with the Tigers, noting the emerging pass-rusher reminded him of the legendary Derrick Thomas. "It happens to the best of players out there, and I just think he didn't have his best day at the combine."

Known for his speed, Smith compensated for that combine effort by running a sub-4.6 40 at Missouri's pro day that spring, which Arnold felt should have solidified him as a mid-round pick. Still no love, although Arnold claims several teams have since admitted they "completely missed" on Smith's draft grade.

After the draft, Smith got his first chance as an undrafted free agent with the Miami Dolphins. And that's when he suddenly became a young pro football journeyman.

DAVIE, FL - MAY 4: Jacquies Smith #72 of the Miami Dolphins xx during the rookie minicamp on May 4, 2012 at the Miami Dolphins training facility in Davie, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

He spent the 2012 offseason on the Miami roster and went to training camp with the Dolphins but barely played in the preseason and was cut when the Dolphins were forced to trim their roster to 75 in late August.

"I was having a pretty good camp," he said of his Miami experience. "But one of the main things I learned pretty quickly when I got in the league is it's not all about what you're doing in camp, it's also about the preseason. And I felt I never really got a chance to play in the preseason, to go out there and showcase myself for the other 31 teams out there. I feel like that's kind of what hurt me the most."

Out of the league as a rookie that fall, Smith—against Arnold's advicecrossed the border to play for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League, where he recorded just one tackle during a short and miserable stretch.

"I pleaded with him," said Arnold. "I said, 'Jacquies, you're way too talented. Don't even say the word CFL.' But he's so hungry, and he's got that chip on his shoulder, so he just wanted to play."

Feeling homesick, he got out of his contract with the Tiger-Cats after only a few weeks and returned to the United States, where he got his second kick at an NFL camp with Rex Ryan and the New York Jets. Same division, similar story, as he was limited to just 73 snaps in the 2013 preseason and was released after spending a month on the Jets practice squad.

Cue the doubts.

"I felt like I had a solid camp again," he said. "I kind of got to play a little bit, and it's another level of disappointment. It had me questioning myself like, 'What am I doing that's not right?' I feel like my confidence in my talent and my game never wavered, but it's like when are these speed bumps gonna stop, and when am I gonna find a home?"

But while he didn't find a home at his next stop, either, his experience with the Buffalo Bills in the summer of 2014 was different. Only five defensive players were on the field more often than he was that preseason, and he flourished with five tackles and 10 pressures on 144 snaps.

"I got a chance to play a ton in the preseason," he recalls, "and I had a feeling I'd get a chance somewhere else because of that. It felt totally different in Buffalo—it was the most comfortable I've ever been in the league, and I found myself playing really fast, and I feel that helped me out a lot."

Aug 16, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Buffalo Bills linebacker Jacquies Smith (54) stands on the sidelines against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second half at Heinz Field. The Steelers won the game, 19-16. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sport
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Added Arnold: "People might say he had opportunities in places before Buffalo, but I'd beg to differ on that because to get a real opportunity, you need to get significant reps. And he didn't get significant reps until that preseason. Once he got that, the rest is really history."

He made Buffalo's 53-man roster but was released after Week 1, caught up in a numbers game as the team brought Nigel Bradham back from suspension. The Bills, who have one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in football, just didn't have space.

Thing is, Smith was stuck behind too many high-quality defensive linemen in each of his first three spots, which is why he wasn't sticking despite the fact he had a lot of important folks believing in him. He remembers receiving extremely positive feedback from then-Dolphins defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers as well as Ryan, then-Bills head coach Doug Marrone and then-Buffalo defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, all of whom figured he'd make it big elsewhere.

"Even though the numbers didn't work out, a lot of them told me they really didn't want to release me and they wanted to bring me back," he said. "But they flat-out told me, 'Once we put you on the waiver wire, you're probably not going to be back with us because we know another team's going to pick you up.' And that held true."

Jacquies Smith's road to NFL stardom
StopDurationResults
Missouri (Big 12)2008-201113 sacks in four years
Miami DolphinsMay-Aug. 20120 tackles, three preseason games
Hamilton (CFL)October 2012One tackle in limited action
New York JetsDec. 2012-Aug. 201373 preseason snaps
Buffalo BillsDec. 2013-Sept. 2014144 preseason snaps
Tampa Bay BuccaneersSept. 2014-present10.5 sacks in 19 games
Bleacher Report

When Bills general manager Doug Whaley released Smith last September, Arnold told him he was "making a big mistake" and that he'd "never see Jacquies again." But Whaley probably knew that. It seems everybody did.

The benefactors were the Buccaneers, who claimed Smith that week in what might have been the best move thus far in general manager Jason Licht's short tenure.

While he says it took him some time to get the scheme down in Tampa, by the time November arrived, Smith was getting regular rotational reps. In a midseason meeting with defensive line coach Joe Cullen and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, he says he was told he'd be seeing increased reps in order to show the coaching staff what he's got in him.

Smith started his first career game in Week 10 against the Atlanta Falcons. The next week in Washington, he played a career-high 48 snaps and recorded two sacks and five pressures. From that point forward, he replaced William Gholston as the regular starter opposite Johnson.

"I kind of took [the increase in snaps from Cullen and Frazier] as a challenge," he said, "and that Washington game is when it happened. That's when I feel like it all started coming together."

It has indeed come together, which is why he leads the NFC in sacks entering Week 5.

Brian Blanco/Associated Press

Success, though, means never being satisfied, and Smith knows his best strategy might be to find new obstacles. He's finally gained some job security and comfort at the NFL level, but now he's setting his sights on a new goal.

"I'm trying to get to double-digit sacks," he said, "because that kind of puts you in the elite crowd. A lot of guys around the league, that's kind of where they want to get to season in and season out."

If he keeps plowing through speed bumps, that might happen before 2015 has expired. And he'll probably have at least a few more Twitter followers, too.

 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Advanced stats via Pro Football Focus.

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