After Defensive Departures, Cowboys Look To Jaylon Smith, Young Secondary

ORLANDO, Fla.– This time of year, projections are just as important as additions and subtractions.

Since free agency began, the Cowboys have added six new players through free agency and trades and said good-bye to five players from last season's roster. Two departures were starters at cornerback and linebacker: Orlando Scandrick, now with the Redskins, and Anthony Hitchens, now a Kansas City Chief.

How will the Cowboys adjust as they modify their roster this offseason? Well, free-agent signing Joe Thomas adds veteran depth at linebacker. The draft could yield more help for both spots in April.

Here's the projection part: They'll also count on progress from Year 2 guys like linebacker Jaylon Smith and 2017 defensive back draft picks Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods.

The Cowboys valued Hitchens' versatility and production but didn't beat a five-year, $45 million offer from the Chiefs. They appreciated Scandrick's contributions over the last 10 seasons but granted him the chance to go play elsewhere.

That says a lot about the confidence in their young secondary and their optimism for Smith, a 2016 second-round pick who made his debut last season after a career-threatening knee injury at Notre Dame that required surgery.

Smith played the second-most defensive snaps of all Cowboys linebackers (578 of 1,048, just behind Sean Lee's 625) and ranked second on defense in tackles (99, just behind Lee's 118). When Lee and Hitchens were both healthy, Smith's snaps per game dropped from 46.0 to 22.1, more in line with the Cowboys' plan to ease him back into action coming off a torn ACL in his left knee and nerve damage that restricted mobility with his left foot.

Though 2018 roles and snap counts are still months from being determined, the organization believes Smith can take another step forward.

"We expect him to come back better this spring, better in training camp than he was the past training camp," head coach Jason Garrett said this week from the Annual NFL Meeting. "We think his physical development will continue as he goes the farther he is away from that surgery. The growing pains that he had being a rookie the first time playing, you work through those. He got better as a result of the experience, but I do think he's getting better physically and we expect him to continue to do so."

The Cowboys didn't want to overload Smith in his rookie season. They hoped Awuzie, Lewis and Woods could have stepped in sooner, but injuries got in the way. Awuzie, the team's second-round pick, missed six games and parts of two others.

When all three defensive backs got healthy in December, the Cowboys won four of their final five games. The youth movement had begun. It will continue in 2018.

"That shows that we've got some confidence in them and are proud of the year they had and their potential," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said.

The Cowboys expect their additions to help them get back to the playoffs. Growth from their draft picks is essential, too.

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