INDIANAPOLIS – It remains to be seen how effective he'll be, but the Cowboys do expect Jaylon Smith to be on the field in 2017.
Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones talked to reporters at length on Tuesday, just before the start of the NFL Combine. But while the Cowboys prepare to vet this year's crop of draft prospects, there was plenty of speculation about Smith – the team's second-round pick from 2016, who has spent more than a calendar year rehabbing a grisly leg injury.
"You know, I think the sky's the limit. I think he's got a great opportunity, if he keeps on his current path, to be a dominant player for us," Jones said. "Now to say I expect that when he's not there yet? That's tough to have that expectation. But I think we do expect him to contribute and be a big part of our defense this year."
That's obviously a good way off, but it still merits plenty of attention given what Smith has been through since January of last year. The Cowboys drafted him No. 34 overall last spring, despite the fact that he was just three months removed from tearing multiple ligaments and damaging his peroneal nerve in Notre Dame's Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.
In the time since, Smith's recovery has been a subject of intense speculation. For his part, the 21-year-old linebacker has been unwavering in his optimism. In the months since the 2016 season ended, he has posted several impressive videos of his workout regimen.
It's too early to say if that means Smith will return to the form that made him a consensus All-American during his final season at Notre Dame. But from the sounds of it, the Cowboys have seen enough to feel optimistic.
"The question is how physically well he gets by the start of next season in terms of what he still has hampering him somewhat," Jones said. "But our guys are convinced he can play in his current condition and it should only improve as we go."
The Cowboys' familiarity with Smith's situation was a big part of their decision to draft him. The team's head physician, Dan Cooper, oversaw his surgery back before the draft, which helped provide a good read on the situation.
Even at this point, 14 months removed from the injury, Smith isn't all the way back. He still works with a brace on his foot to help it function properly after the nerve damage. Asked about it on Tuesday, though, Jones said Smith could play even with a brace.
"And then the question is, how effective can he be in that brace," he said. "We think he's going to be real effective, but how effective remains to be seen."
Obviously, the Cowboys will be hoping for the best. Smith was universally regarded as one of last year's best prospects before his injury, and adding that type of talent to the Dallas defense could be a major boost.
For now, the fact that the Cowboys are talking about getting Smith onto a football field is news in and of itself.
"That's why I think it's difficult to say, 'Well, we expect him to be the dominant player he was at Notre Dame,'" Jones said. "That's probably high expectations. Is it possible? Absolutely."