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Debating how much Jaylon Smith will mean to the Cowboys this season

Jaylon Smith is very optimistic - but should we be?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Will 2018 be the year that Jaylon Smith finally realizes his potential for the Dallas Cowboys? A lot of fans and some media think so, and he certainly does.

While the bars may be a bit questionable (or maybe not, we aren’t exactly connoisseurs here), his attitude certainly isn’t. And it has some of us pumped up.

But not all of us. We got hyped for him last year, but he was still more limited than many had hoped. Our Michael Strawn and Tom Ryle had a bit of a debate over just how much we can expect from him this fall.

Tom: Seemingly every report about Jaylon Smith has been positive. He is completely free of the foot brace, which indicates his drop foot is no longer an issue. That blinding speed seems to be back in full. And he had excellent read and react ability in college. This should be the year he finally becomes the player the Cowboys always hoped he would. The idea of him lining up with Sean Lee and Leighton Vander Esch is just mouth-watering. They should provide a solid run-stopping trio while also giving the defense some tantalizing blitz options. Bring it on!

Michael: Hey, I understand the optimism. And the reports are very encouraging. However, I am and always have been highly skeptical of media reports from OTAs and non-contact practices. Especially when they come with things like blinding speed “seems” to be back. Jaylon Smith wasn’t a great athlete at Notre Dame, he was an ELITE athlete with a virtually unmatched combination of speed and explosiveness. Even if he returns to 90% of what he was (not a sure thing, by any means) he won’t be elite but average in the NFL.

Tom: The speed was one thing that was already starting to return last season. His lingering problems were mostly about his ability to change direction. Now that is looking to be cleared up, so that elite athleticism should come back into play. Additionally, he has a year of experience under his belt to build on. This could be the season for that big jump a lot of second year players (which is really where he is). And I think it is going to happen.

Michael: We definitely agree Smith’s ability to change direction was his biggest weakness. You say his ability to change direction is “looking to be cleared up”; I don’t know what that means. What I do know is that even late in the season when Smith was required to change direction he looked like the least athletic player on the field. I’m just having a hard time believing that six months later he’s completely better. The key point here being that Smith very well could have improved dramatically from where he was at the end of 2017, and still not be an average NFL linebacker yet; that’s how far behind he was last year. Yes, I’ve read that he had an outrageously positive 3-cone shuttle number (or whatever the shorts-and-sneakers drill is called) but again, until I see it on a field in pads with 300-pounders trying to knock your head off I’ll remain skeptical.

Tom: I’m not sure how the presence of big blockers trying to level him will reduce his ability to cut and change direction. Seems it would be more motivation. But however you see that, the 3-cone shuttle is one of the most relevant of underwear drills. That makes the time you refer to one of the biggest indicators that he is ready to show out. And this year, with LVE part of the roster, Jaylon is not likely to be left as much on an island as he was last season when Lee and Anthony Hitchens were both out. Given the roles the three starters are expected to play, Jaylon should be starting as the SAM - which itself gives him a little protection, since he will not be out there for every defensive down. As I alluded to at the beginning, he is going to be able to focus on run defense and some blitzing. And I think he will shine.

Michael: Fair enough. And I’ll admit I’m somewhat excited about his potential blitz skills, that’s something I’m eager to see. Of course that assumes the coaching staff is going to get outside their comfort zone and utilize Smith that way, which is far from a given. I’m not so excited about seeing Smith in the run game. I don’t break film down and look at hundreds of snaps on a player, so it’s possible I’m wrong here but Smith seemed overwhelmed in the run game to me. He seemed slow to react to plays, took bad angles and got caught up in the wash far too often. These aren’t really physical limitations, they’re mental abilities. In fact, I’d argue that someone like Sean Lee plays beyond his physical abilities because he’s elite at diagnosing plays, reading the angles and then beating his man to the spot. I’m not sure a return to physical health helps Smith that much in this area.

Tom: Well, if you want a linebacker to learn about diagnosing and reading angles, is there any better place to do so than in the same lineup with Lee? This year should be about finishing Jaylon’s education, or at least getting it much more complete. I just see the arrow pointing up here, and think he is in for a big season.

Michael: Again we’re in agreement. And I’m certainly not saying Jaylon can’t become what many hoped when he was drafted. However, I’ve always been skeptical he could ever return to the elite level athlete he was in college, nothing that has happened in the last 15 months changes my opinion. I will say I’m absolutely rooting for him. Simply getting to this point has been nothing short of a miracle. By all accounts he’s an extraordinary person with first class character and an irrepressible positive energy. He’s exactly the kind of person you want on your team. I’m desperately hoping I’m wrong about his eventual return to full health.

So where do you land on this? Are you all in on Jaylon Smith, or do you think we need to tap the brakes? Let us know in the comments.

Editorial note: There was a bit of role playing in this discussion; Tom and Michael are probably more in agreement on things than the debate might make it seem. So be gentle with any criticisms, please.

No animals, electric bicycles, or exotic Italian sports cars were harmed in the production of this post.

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