(At long last, the NFL season is in sight. After a long offseason, the Cowboys are set to depart for training camp on July 24. During this final month before they begin practice in Oxnard, Calif., the staff of DallasCowboys.com is going to preview the 20 biggest questions facing the Cowboys heading into 2018.)
FRISCO, Texas – Perhaps no one on the Dallas Cowboys' 2017 roster had a better season, in context, than Jaylon Smith.
Just 18 months earlier, Smith's football career was jeopardized by torn knee ligaments and nerve damage in his final college game. After sitting out his 2016 rookie season, Smith – a second-round pick who likely would have been a top-5 selection if healthy – appeared in every game at linebacker last year for the Cowboys. He firmly believes his best is still ahead.
That's the next item in our preseason preview:
7) What are your expectations for Jaylon Smith in Year 2?
David Helman: I'm so intrigued about what Jaylon Smith could be in 2018. He's healthier, sure. He's more experienced. But more so than anything else, I think the addition of Leighton Vander Esch to this team might make him more versatile. With a first-round draft pick helping to man the middle, the Cowboys no longer need a pure middle linebacker to play 60-80 snaps per game. That means that Smith can do a variety of things. He can play in the middle, he can shift over to the strong side, he can rush the passer in certain situations – the list goes on. So what I'm expecting in 2018 is that Smith has a smaller role but a larger impact. If he finished with just 70 tackles on the season, but five sacks and a couple of takeaways, I'd call that a pretty big win.
Lindsay Draper: I love a good Jaylon Smith question. People are quick to question Jaylon Smith – when in reality, anything he does is the answer. What I mean by that: any progress he makes, and anything he does, can be considered a success. It's no secret, he performs best when Sean Lee takes the majority of the work. We saw a lesser performance from the defense as a whole when Lee was hurt last season. Now add Leighton Vander Esch to the mix, and you really can count on Smith staying in his role. I think of it like the 6th man in basketball – bring him off the bench, knowing he's going to dominate throughout pieces of the game. So speaking of pieces; with all of them in place, I expect a very pleasing year for Jaylon Smith.
Nick Eatman: I nearly picked Smith for Question 15 on which player will make his first Pro Bowl. I hesitated because of his role and what the Cowboys might try to do with Vander Esch in the middle. But I do think Smith will be very impactful this year. Two full seasons removed from the injury, Smith should be flying around the ball and using his instincts to make plays. This is a big year for Smith and if he can be even close to the player he was at Notre Dame, coupled with Lee and D-Law playing at their expected levels, this defense has a chance to be really good.
Mickey Spagnola: My expectations is for him to improve greatly. That might sound weird to say of a player who in his first season actually playing in the NFL after not playing any football from Jan. 1, 2016, to Sept. 10, 2017, and doing so with a foot brace to combat the drop foot he was experiencing because of damage he suffered to his peroneal nerve, but this guy finished second on the Cowboys in 2017 with 99 tackles while playing just 54.1 percent of the defensive snaps – fifth most among the front seven guys. The nerve continues to regenerate. The knee is stronger after going through major surgery to repair his torn ACL, among other things. He is moving quicker, faster, taking fewer of those baby steps to get going. Change of direction is crisp. Now the true test of what's to come will be in Oxnard, when the pads some on.