Jaylon Smith is THE story. The Tony Romo saga is far past the rear-view mirror and that means Jaylon is all that anyone wants to talk about. His will be one of the more anticipated debuts for the Dallas Cowboys in quite some time. Naturally, with the skills Smith showed playing for the Fighting Irish, the Cowboys are hoping to see some of that when they take the field in September. With that said, don’t expect the Cowboys to push their luck with Jaylon and rush this debut.
The front office and the coaches have both shown excitement about Jaylon Smith. There is not a single person NOT rooting for Jaylon Smith from teammate to fan to reporters. “Everyone Loves Jaylon” should be the title of the offseason sitcom. Though there is a ton of cautious optimism, we have to remember that first word cautious.
We’ve heard Stephen Jones talk of “doing right” by Jaylon on Talkin’ Cowboys. They’re going to continue to operate with that mantra. There are reasons that folks have creeping doubt about Jaylon but that doesn’t mean they’re “just hating” on him. Guys like Bryan Broaddus that are speaking of being cautious with our hopes are only trying to soften the blow if it ends up taking some time. Smith has yet to shed the AFO brace that he wears for the drop foot issue he’s working through. The workout videos are exciting but practice and the “real deal” are two different things.
We don’t need to get into all that because everyone is up-to-date with Jaylon’s every move in practice. He’s working towards debuting week one as the starting middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys but there is still plenty of work to do to get there. His nerve is regenerating, as we know, but nobody knows when that progression will halt. This truly is a “day-to-day” situation that we take for granted seeing as we hear it every day from Jason Garrett.
There is an underappreciated variable as to why the Cowboys are not rushing this situation, Anthony Hitchens has allowed them not to. Yes, Anthony Hitchens deserves our respect and gratitude for the way he played in 2016. Despite the doubts that were had for Hitchens last year, he stepped up and played well as a starter. You have to remember that Rolando McClain was the hopeful starter and Hitchens is not the “hammer” that McClain was. There were serious concerns that the Cowboys’ would be one of the worst defense’s against the run yet they were the very best at the end of the season. Anthony Hitchens deserves a sliver of the credit pie if you catch my drift.
After dealing with some injuries over his first two seasons in the league, Hitchens played in all 16 games last year. Hitchens was involved in 78 tackles in 2016, which would put him at fourth on the team. 39 of those 78 tackles were solos which tied him for sixth on the team. One of the keys to a Rod Marinelli defense is funneling the tackles toward the weakside linebacker, Sean Lee had 145 tackles with almost 100 solo tackles. Lee made his first All-Pro appearance and surely he would credit the players he had helping him reach that feat. Anthony Hitchens did as he was asked and the linebackers all benefited from doing their jobs.
Stepping in for guys is not something new to Hitchens. He started 11 games in his rookie year after Sean Lee was injured in OTA’s. In 2014, Hitchens was fourth on the team in tackles with 75 tackles, 59 solo tackles, and one interception. Over his short three-year career, he’s stepped in for some big names at linebacker in Sean Lee and Rolando McClain.
Every time he’s done this, he’s played above expectations. That’s precisely why the Cowboys’ don’t feel pressure to push Jaylon Smith beyond his limits. Smith could wind up starting game one and play every game for the rest of his career. However, if needed, have to have some confidence that Hitchens can answer the call.
Hitchens will never be the playmaker that Sean Lee is or the athlete that Jaylon Smith is but he’s just solid. You don’t fill out a roster chocked-full of studs at every position. It’s important to find guys that you can trust to come in and do THEIR part and that’s the epitome of a successful player. Hitchens isn’t other-worldly but he’s certainly not a JAG. Anthony Hitchens’ abilities allow for the Cowboys to take their time with their potential red-shirt phenomenon.