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Three potential breakout candidates for the Cowboys defense in 2018

Who will emerge for the Cowboys on the defensive side of the ball?

Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It’s only June, but football season will be here before we know it. As we await to see whether or not the Cowboys can get back to the postseason, we wrote on three offensive players that have the potential to have a breakout campaign in 2018.

Today, we will look on the defensive side of the ball. While the Cowboys have a star pass rusher and some impressive young studs in the secondary, players all over the unit need to step up in big ways to help Dallas have a successful season.

Jaylon Smith is reportedly feeling better than ever, Byron Jones will likely benefit from moving to the cornerback position, and Kony Ealy is a player that the Cowboys had their eyes on during the draft process back in 2014. If any of these three players can emerge, the Cowboys will be in the thick of the playoff race next season.

Jaylon Smith

You cannot have a breakout list talking about the defensive side of the ball for the Cowboys without mentioning 2016 second-round pick Jaylon Smith. The once top-five talent has spent the past two years rehabbing from a nasty injury in which he suffered in his final collegiate football game back in 2016 before falling to the second-round of that draft. While he was able to play last season, it was clear that Smith had some limitations to his game — as expected, of course.

Now, though, there appears to be more and more optimism surrounding the former Notre Dame Fighting Irish star. News broke during Cowboys OTAs that the freakish backer will no longer be playing with the AFO brace that he has worn since injuring his anterior cruciate ligament, which as a result severely damaged the peroneal nerve. Fortunately, the nerve began to reintegrate, signaling that Smith was on a path to relative recovery.

Additionally, Smith has added as much as eight pounds of muscle this offseason and is down to 3.5% body fat.

Still not impressed? Smith believes that he will be better than he was at Notre Dame. Those are obviously sky-high expectations, but the freakish specimen is set on being “great”. That’s music to the ears of Cowboys fans.

“People thought I’d never be able to play the game again,” he said, via 247Sports. “I’ve been able to accomplish that and each and every day I’ve gotten better. Last year, each game I improved. I’m getting there.

”I’m going to be better than Notre Dame 100 percent -- my overall knowledge of the game has improved each and every day and [I’m physically] going to improve as well.”

“I’ve been very thankful,” he said to 247Sports and others. “Just to be able to move even better, more like myself. I’m just taking it all in. I’m gonna be great.

“I wanna be great for this team, for my brothers.”

Jaylon obviously struggled in getting from sideline-to-sideline consistently and in pass coverage, but he also showed some flashes when he was able to put his head down and rush the passer — an aspect that Smith excels at and can be dangerous at for the Cowboys. Smith is at his best when he plays without hesitation. Without the brace, we may see more of this.

If Smith can grow into a consistent role for the Cowboys defense in 2018, that can only mean big things for the 10 other defenders on the field.

Byron Jones

Similarily to Smith, you cannot really have a “breakout” list featuring Cowboys defenders without mentioning Byron Jones — a man that has been in a lot of headlines this offseason since the hiring of Kris Richard and the move from safety to the cornerback position.

The 2015 first-round selection, and the former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator, may be a match made in heaven, at least that’s what the pair believe. Jones says he thinks he is “perfect” for Richard.

“I think I’m a perfect player for what he wants,’’ said Byron, referring to a football relationship with new Dallas Cowboys top defensive aide Kris Richard.

Richard echoed the same sentiments about the safety-turned-cornerback, claiming that Jones is “prototypical” due to his combination of size and speed.

“Prototypical,” said Richard on the eve of Cowboys OTAs, which begin today here inside The Star in Frisco. “Fantastic athlete, size, length, speed.”

Jones did a great job of covering opposing tight ends — such as Zach Ertz, for example. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked Jones as one of the best slot defenders in the league.

Our own RJ Ochoa wrote on why the move from safety to corner is going to benefit Byron Jones.

There are many, myself included, that would love to see Jourdan as that slot guy, but there’s a level of logic to Jones handling it himself.

Pro Football Focus recently discussed slot cornerback play from last season, and Jones scored well on their list even though they note he was a safety (fast forward to the 5:35 mark). Jones played 23% of his snaps in the slot last season.

Jones’ trademark over the last three seasons has been to neutralize the opposing team’s tight end. When you consider that the NFC East features studs like Jordan Reed, Zach Ertz, and now Evan Engram, that’s a great weapon to have at your disposal.

If Jones can grow and improve his game under Richard’s coaching, receivers and tight ends need to look out.

Kony Ealy

Kony Ealy is one of the newest members of the Dallas Cowboys, as the 2014 second-round selection inked a one-year deal back in April. Ealy, the 60th pick of the same draft that saw Dallas select DeMarcus Lawrence, was a prospect that the Cowboys were high on throughout the draft process before ultimately trading up for Tank.

Ealy has played for two teams during his four-season career thus far — three for the Carolina Panthers and this past year with the New York Jets. The Missouri Tigers product has recorded 90 career tackles, 15 sacks, 14 pass deflections, two interceptions, and forced six fumbles from the defensive end position. But Ealy’s brightest moment on the NFL level came on the biggest stage: Super Bowl 50 versus the Broncos, where he sacked Peyton Manning three times and even picked off a pass.

When the Cowboys saw Ealy hit free agency this offseason, they did not pass up the opportunity to bring him into an already talented defensive line that features Lawrence, David Irving, and Maelik Collins. Jason Garrett sees a lot of potential in the former Tigers star.

“He’s a young, developing player, and we feel like he’s got a lot of football left in him,” coach Jason Garrett said.

“That’s always a challenge, when you’re talking about players you get from other teams, players you get coming out in the draft, what their exposure has been, what system they’ve played in,” Garrett said. “We’re fortunate that Kony has played in a system similar to ours in Carolina. We saw him as a four-down type of player coming out of school. So we don’t feel like he has any physical limitations. He’s been exposed to some different systems now as a pro, so we feel like that will benefit him.”

But seeing potential and actually getting that player to reach his potential are two different things. Regardless, Ealy will have opportunities to make an impact along the defensive line. In fact, he is among the best in the league at batting down passes, according to Pro Football Focus.

If Rod Marinelli can get the best out of Ealy, the Cowboys’ defensive line will only be better with DeMarcus Lawrence playing the best football of his career, Irving disrupting the middle, Taco Charlton developing, and even a possible Randy Gregory return.

Who is your pick to breakout for the Cowboys defense in 2018, BTB?

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