FRISCO, Texas – Before his career-threatening knee injury in the 2016 Rose Bowl, Jaylon Smith was almost surely a top-five draft pick.
Two and a half years later, healthy with a full NFL season on his résumé, the 22-year-old linebacker expects to surpass college-age Jaylon Smith in 2018.
"I'm going to be better than 'Notre Dame 100 percent,'" he said at the Cowboys' seventh annual Reliant Home Run Derby.
Here's proof that Smith feels healthier and healthier: He says he has trained this offseason without the foot brace he used last year to counter the movement restrictions caused by the nerve damage he sustained with the old knee injury.
"There's a great chance that I won't have to play with it this year," he said.
"People thought I'd never play the game again, and I've been able to accomplish that. Each and every day I've gotten better. Last year each game I improved. It just feels great to continue to be able to improve my health."
After sitting out his rookie season, the 2016 second-round pick played in all 16 games last year and finished second on defense with 99 tackles, according to coaching film.
The Cowboys thought Smith was more effective with fewer snaps as he worked his way back into football, but injuries to Sean Lee and free-agent departure Anthony Hitchens forced him to play at least 50 snaps in four games.
It remains to be seen how the Cowboys plan to rotate Smith and first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch. Both can fill Hitchens' old middle linebacker spot, with Lee continuing to handle the weak side.
Days before the Cowboys drafted Vander Esch, executive vice president Stephen Jones said the team needed linebacker depth – veteran Kyle Wilber also departed in free agency – but feels confident Smith will take a "big step" next season.
A big reason is Smith's approach. He was diligent in his day-to-day rehab with Britt Brown (associate athletic trainer/director of rehabilitation), Jim Maurer (head athletic trainer) and the Cowboys' medical and strength staff.
And he's tried to learn as much as possible from Lee and the veterans.
"My overall knowledge of the game has improved each and every day," he said. "And my physicalness is going to continue to improve as well when you talk about getting back to 100 percent."