FRISCO, Texas — This time last year, Johnathan Hankins was in minicamp with the Las Vegas Raiders, hoping their sweeping changes would equate to wins. A trade in late October brought the former second-round pick to the Dallas Cowboys, his former foe as a member of the New York Giants defense in the mid-2010s.
His impact was instant, like a meteor crashing into the Earth's crust, and the Cowboys' once-beleaguered run defense took a … huge … step forward in upgrading over the back half of last season when Hankins was on the field.
He landed a new contract with the club, a no-brainer for the Cowboys, keeping him plugged in the middle of their defensive line going forward.
"I'm just excited to be back and to be able to make another run with these guys," said Hankins.
It's one thing to say he's excited, folks, but the emotion was almost literally emanating from Hankins' pores like some sort of pheromone throughout this entire conversation. And it turned up to maximum levels when the talk turned to his impressions of first-round pick Mazi Smith.
"It's nice to see a Michigan guy get drafted in the first round, even though I'm a Buckeye," said Hankins while wearing his signature ear-to-ear grin. "Dude is probably one of the strongest guys on the team. I'm definitely honored to be able to mentor him, show him the way and try to help him develop."
Smith was seen lining up not in rotation with Hankins on Day 2 of minicamp, but to his right on packages that suggest both will be on the field at the same time — evidence the Cowboys aren't kidding around when they say Smith will be utilized as both a run-stopper and a pass rusher.
It's yet another nuclear bomb at the disposal of Dan Quinn, whose stockade is now to a point that he and the Cowboys might soon get a call from NATO about Dallas' proliferation of weapons.
"That D-line room is nasty," said Hankins, shaking his head in literal amazement. "Every time I talk about it, I'm just so excited and not just to talk about it, but to be a part of it. We're working hard, getting each other better and we're some bad (MFers). That's just the way we do things, and that's what our motto is."
The best thing about it all, as described by Hankins, is the unadulterated selflessness; and in how it's simply one of the best units he's ever been a part of, top to bottom, as one of the best defenses in the NFL has arguably become better one season later.
He's taking nothing for granted, wants it all in 2023, and feels the Cowboys are primed to deliver.
"Every guy in that room — it doesn't matter who gets the shine," said Hankins. "We feed off of one another. It just feels good. It's nice to be around a team like this, that's orchestrated well and you don't get that many opportunities; especially for me, I'm in my 11th season and I've only been to the playoffs twice.
"This team, for years to come, is gonna be something. I see this defense getting even scarier for offensive guys."
Scarier? Makes sense, considering Hankins arrived last Halloween.