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Jaylon Smith’s time could be now for the Cowboys, whether he’s ready for it or not

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An injury to Anthony Hitchens means that the Cowboys are now in need of a starting middle linebacker and it could force their Jaylon Smith hand.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There have been an awful lot of things to talk about in the world of the Dallas Cowboys since their 2016 season ended (which we were painfully reminded of when Jared Cook made another sideline catch in AT&T Stadium). While there are many points of promise, this has been the offseason of Jaylon Smith.

It’s well documented how long Jaylon Smith went between the Fiesta Bowl and his NFL debut agains the Indianapolis Colts. We’ve debated philosophies, brace usage, nerve regeneration... the Jaylon umbrella houses a lot of topics.

While the former second-round pick represents a lot of promise in the heart of the Cowboys defense, up until this point we had a bit of a safety net with him. Jaylon has been afforded a luxury rare to NFL players - time. The team, coaches, front office, and anyone with a rooting interest has understood the hurdle he’s been overcoming.

Matt Eberflus has worked many a wonder with Dallas linebackers. Sean Lee is Sean Lee, and Rolando McClain was fantastic before everything completely fell apart off of the field. Guys like Justin Durant and Anthony Hitchens have proven to be valuable commodities over the last few years, and the latter entered the preseason game against the Oakland Raiders as the team’s starting middle linebacker.

A potential season-ending injury to Anthony Hitchens has really shaken things up in terms of how we view the linebacker unit as a whole. If Hitchens does miss the entire season, there’s a legitimate line of logic that says Jaylon Smith could/should rise to take that spot.

Jaylon got the start during his NFL debut against the Colts, but that’s a whole different thing. A preseason game against a sub par quarterback is much more conquerable than the realities of the regular season. It is strangely coincidental though, given his draft classmate Dak Prescott, how this potential opportunity has unfolded.

During Week 3 of the 2016 preseason the Cowboys lost a starter in #9, forcing #4 into the fold. This was Week 3 of the 2017 preseason, 366 days later, and the Cowboys seemingly lost a starter in #59... opening the door for #54.

It’s been easy for optimism surrounding Jaylon to exist. That’s not to say that optimism is unwarranted, but with an Anthony Hitchens-level player in front of him the Cowboys didn’t have to roll Jaylon out right away. In fact, about a month ago, there were many that still doubted whether Jaylon would play at all this season. It was easy to be excited because there was no consequence to it.

The Cowboys have a potential option to take over at middle linebacker in Justin Durant, who’s seen work there in Dallas before. They could obviously go out and acquire somebody (the crowds cheer for Daryl Washington, Ahmad Brooks, or Perry Riley) whether it be via free agency, trade, or claiming someone who’s available after roster cut downs.

The middle linebacker position has been looking for a legitimate point of stability for some time in Dallas. Sean Lee needs a tag-team partner, and that’s why Jaylon Smith was drafted. We’ve waited a long time, overcoming hurdle after hurdle, and we could be on the precipice of it all fully materializing.

It will remain to be seen how the Cowboys handle this, but it makes the most sense to begin the process of enacting Project Jaylon. The reality now though is that there is no longer a safety net of any kind.

UPDATE:

Anthony Hitchens’ injury has been revealed to be one that will only sideline him for eight weeks, not the entire season.