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10 Burning Questions: #1 - How Good Will Jaylon Smith Be For The Cowboys In 2017?

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In this series we will count down (from 10 to 1) some burning preseason questions for the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s the final burning question, and it’s has already been written about a ton - how good will Jaylon Smith be for the Cowboys this year? The corollary to that question is - how much of an impact can he have on the overall defense?

Obviously these questions are tied to his health, and on that score, the news seems to be getting more positive by the day. He is feeling the nerve regenerate, which is allowing him to move his toes and foot in a way he couldn’t before. His progress is accelerating. For nine months, there was next to no progress. Then it started slowly with some tingling. Now it is moving faster. And he keeps saying he’ll be ready by training camp, and will be full go for the opener against the Giants.

Everywhere he goes, he generates a tremendous amount of excitement. As the Cowboys progress through these practices, Jaylon’s improvement is going to be a central focus. Perhaps not every day, as the Cowboys are expected to give him Wednesdays off, while working him Tuesdays and Thursdays. Training camp is also likely to see him with more rest days than other young guys. But when he’s on the field, all eyes are going to be trained his way.

The question will continue to come back to - how good can he be in 2017? And how much of a difference will that make for the defense?

We don’t know the answer, but if you looked up and down the Cowboys roster, there is likely no other player who has the potential to add as much new value as Jaylon Smith.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve used Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) metric over and over again. It is not a perfect measure, but it’s quite useful as a shorthand for a player’s value.

Last season, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott each scored 16 AV, which tied for the highest rookie number in Cowboy’s history. That 16 AV score was matched by Sean Lee. No one else on the Cowboys defense scored higher than 7 AV, though four players did it — Maliek Collins, Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, and Anthony Hitchens. Meanwhile, on offense, six players other than Dak and Zeke scored higher than 7 AV - the three All-Pro linemen, who scored 13 AV each, Cole Beasley (9), Dez Bryant (8), Doug Free (8). There’s a reason the Cowboys offense has been so much better than its defense for many years.

When you think of how the Cowboys went from a 4-12 team in 2015 to 13-3 in 2016, AV can tell a big part of that tale. Look at these tables, one for offense, and one for defense.

Offensive AV - 2015 v 2016

Position 2015 Player AV score 2016 Player AV score
QB1 Romo 2 Prescott 16
RB1 McFadden 7 Elliott 16
LT Smith 10 Smith 13
LG Collins 4 Leary 5
C Frederick 8 Frederick 13
RG Martin 8 Martin 13
RT Free 6 Free 8
WR1 Williams 5 Beasley 9
WR2 Bryant 3 Bryant 8
WR3 Beasley 3 Williams 6
TE1 Witten 4 Witten 7
Total 60 114

(Note: Tony Romo tied with Brandon Weeden and Kellen Moore for the highest AV quarterback for Dallas in 2015, with 2 AV each. Matt Cassell scored 1 AV.)

Look at the difference. Vastly better quarterback play was worth nine additional AV (Prescott 16 v Romo, Weeden, Moore, Cassell 7 total). That also helped increase the four primary receiver AVs from 15 to 30. The lead running back was worth nine extra AV points as well (Elliott 16 v McFadden 7), and his play helped elevate the offensive line AV from 36 to 52 AV.

Defensive AV - 2015 v 2016

Position 2015 Player AV score 2016 Player AV score
DE1 Lawrence 7 T Crawford 7
DE2 Hardy 6 J Crawford 6
DT1 T Crawford 7 Collins 7
DT2 Hayden 7 Irving 3
LB1 Lee 10 Lee 16
LB2 R McClain 6 Hitchens 7
CB1 Carr 6 Carr 6
CB2 Claiborne 4 Brown 4
CB3 Jones 4 Scandrick 4
S1 Church 5 Jones 6
S2 Wilcox 5 Church 5
Total 67 71

What’s fascinating on defense is that there wasn’t that much difference in AV between the two years. Sean Lee was the main difference, and his gain of 6 AV was offset by small declines elsewhere.

Into this framework the Cowboys are going to insert Jaylon Smith. They will also have Taco Charlton, Charles Tapper, Stephen Paea, a healthier Demarcus Lawrence, and some new defensive backs, whose roles are yet to be determined. But of all of these, Smith likely has the most potential to reach a double digit AV total.

Can Smith elevate the middle linebacker position to Sean Lee-like levels? If so, will his presence in the middle of the field help elevate the play of the other members of the defense? Football is an interconnected sport. How much can Jaylon Smith help transform the Cowboys defense this year? That is burning question number 1.

Burning question #10 - Can The Cowboys Return Game Return?

Burning question #9 - Can Dez Bryant Become a Cowboys’ Monster Again?

Burning question #8 - Will the Cowboys’ Underachievers Step Up This Year?

Burning question #7 - Will Rico Gathers and Ryan Switzer Improve the Cowboys’ Offense?

Burning question #6 - Will the Cowboys Force More Turnovers This Year?

Burning question #5 - Can Dallas Generate a Top-10 Pass Rush?

Burning question #4 - Can La’el Collins and Jonathan Cooper Keep The Cowboys’ Offensive Line Humming?

Burning question #3 - Can the Cowboys’ Defense Lower the Opponents’ Passer Rating?

Burning question #2 - Can Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott Be Better in 2017?