The Dallas Cowboys took a huge risk when they made the decision to select Notre Dame star linebacker Jaylon Smith with the 34th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. After suffering a devastating knee injury during his last collegiate game, many people felt that Smith’s chances to be successful at the pro level were slim to none. The brain-trust in Dallas didn’t feel that way and after they got a positive endorsement from their own doctor, Dr. Daniel Cooper, who also performed the surgery on Smith’s knee, the team felt better about his chances than most. And with Smith possessing the type of character that will do everything in his power to rehabilitate himself to the fullest - the Cowboys believed that pulling the trigger on Smith was the right move.
And they were right.
Last year, Smith did a commendable job of putting himself in a position where he could run around on the field for all 16 games. It was inspiring for sure, but there was still a lot missing from his game. With a nerve that continued to regenerate over time, Smith was never at full strength and even required a brace to help him with drop foot throughout the season. As a result, Jaylon was a liability at times. His movement was stiff as it was clear he could not change direction smoothly and that stymied his effectiveness as a linebacker. The team relied on him a lot last season due to injuries to both Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens, but once they returned, Smith’s reps were reduced. He played fine in limited snaps, but he just wasn’t the player people were hoping for.
That’s all about to change. Jaylon Smith is back.
First and foremost, Smith is moving extremely well. In the first preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers, Jaylon was all over the place. He was bursting through the defensive line into the backfield and he was flying 30 yards down the field to break up a pass. The sheer speed of Smith was on display and he showed no indication that his mobility is being hindered.
Not only was Smith playing at a high level physically, but he demonstrated a great deal of improvement with his basic understanding of the position. Last year, Smith was a risk-taker, often times over-pursuing plays and then getting caught in no-mans land when a sharp cut took him completely out of the play. Last night, Smith showed a great deal of body control and kept his feet moving well to allow him the ability to stutter-step and react to the direction of the play. He had a great sequence where he diagnosed the play correctly and chased down 49ers running back Jerick McKinnon for no gain.
The Cowboys need this type of stability from the linebacker position, which is one of the reasons they selected Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of the draft. Making such a large investment in another linebacker may appear like it lit a fire under Smith, but this kid has no shortage of determination. He’s being going full-throttle since day one and the only thing that has held him back is the physical capability of his body. But as we saw on Thursday night, those limitations look like they have disappeared and it’s very possible that we finally get to see the Notre Dame version of Jaylon Smith.
Some of us have dreamt about what it would be like to have a full strength Lee and Smith next to each other and it appears that dream will be coming true very soon. This is great news for the Cowboys defense as they continue to find ways to improve this squad. With Smith playing at a high level this season, that’s a game-changer. It’s time to get excited, folks because the swipe is back!