It’s been awhile since the Dallas Cowboys could lean on the strength of its defense to win games. Sure, recent iterations have ranged from the serviceable, 2014’s “bend-don’t-break” unit, to the solid but generally in need of protection squad of 2016. Jaylon Smith was not apart of either of these teams. At least not as an active player.
Despite being a second round draft pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Smith was viewed as a long-term investment rather than a “plug and play” day one starter. In his first season as a Cowboy, he watched as his fellow rookie classmates Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott helped the team capture the number one seed in the NFC, only to fall in the Divisional round of the playoffs to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
Smith had been forced to watch from the sideline, his leg still on the mend from a devastating knee injury suffered in his final game for the Fighting Irish. Due to the severity of the injury, multiple ligament tears and a fracture, Smith battled nerve damage, the result of led to a condition known as drop foot. From the moment Smith went down in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl until the moment he took the field for training camp in 2017, there was a lingering concern he may never play again. Despite this, he never lost his “Clear Eye View.”
Jaylon Smith never doubted he would return to the field one day; that he would reclaim his once believed “generational” form. All throughout last year’s training camp we heard from the linebacker’s teammates and coaches how he was never anything less than positive throughout the rehabilitation process. It’s because of that relentlessness and unwavering belief in himself that Smith, now in his second year on the active roster, looks to be the player the Cowboys hoped and prayed he could still be when they took him with the 34th pick.
While Smith’s rookie year in 2017 wasn’t always the smoothest of rides, you could see the improvement as the season wore on. The nerve still wasn’t quite right, leading to difficulty in changing direction and weaving through traffic to get to the ball carrier. Whenever Dallas could keep Smith moving downhill, the linebacker rarely if ever disappointed. Unfortunately, Smith’s limitations were eventually exposed by the Atlanta Falcons ,and then attacked repeatedly over the next several weeks. This, coinciding with a Sean Lee hamstring injury, led to Dallas’ season going off the rails despite a valiant late season push for the playoffs.
Questions would again rise regarding Jaylon’s recovery as the Cowboys elected to take Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick in this year’s draft. The addition of another linebacker signaled to many that Dallas was, at least on some level, worried Smith wouldn’t return to form as team doctors had originally hoped. If that was the team’s thinking, it couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Jaylon Smith flashed his immense potential all throughout this year’s training camp, doing so for the first time without the aid of his AFO orthotic. Before camp, we had seen videos of Smith bowling, raising up on his tip-toes and approaching the lane with confidence. The nerve was firing once more, and with it came the strength and ability to change direction Smith had been lacking. Jaylon was ready to ball.
While Smith’s season began with a bit of a ho-hum performance at Carolina, he rebounded nicely in the home opener against the New York Giants, racking up 10 tackles, on the way to Dallas’ first win. The following week at Seattle, he would enjoy another solid performance with 8 tackles and his second sack of the season.
Against Detroit we got the chance to see just how good he can be even without Sean Lee. Filling in next to him was Vander Esch, the man many believed had been drafted to do what Smith couldn’t. Together, the two linebackers shined in Dallas’ victory over the Lions, but Smith’s true coming out party would have to wait one more week.
One of the few bright spots in Dallas’ 19-16 overtime loss against the Houston Texans was Jaylon Smith’s elite level of play. The defense as a whole shined brilliantly, but it was Smith’s 12 tackles, 1 sack that stole the show. Smith was everywhere, rushing the passer, weaving through traffic and frankly brutalizing DeShaun Watson any time the dual-treat quarterback even thought about scrambling into the endzone. The result was three separate goal-line stands for the Dallas defense and several opportunities to escape Houston with a much-needed victory.
While Smith would have gladly traded his career day for a win, it’s important to recognize what’s taking shape in the Dallas linebacking corps. Sean Lee at 32 years-old cannot be relied on to play a full 16 game season. But unlike years past where his absence would’ve devastated the defense, as a whole, the past two weeks with Smith and Vander Esch have shown immense potential for the future. Both players are explosive and both can tackle very well.
Health permitting, the Cowboys could very have themselves one of the better linebacking corps in the league, with Smith at the center of it all; something the Notre Dame product undoubtedly believed was possible the moment his career could have been ended.
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