FRISCO, Texas - If you were to try to determine who on the Cowboys roster is the best athlete full stop, you'd have quite a few options to choose from. Ezekiel Elliott has speed and power. Amari Cooper has speed and length. Michael Gallup lacks size, but has phenomenal body control. Tyron Smith has power and grace. And fans are chomping at the bit to see just how athletic CeeDee Lamb will look in the NFL.
But if you spend enough time thinking about it, you might actually land on a defensive player. It's hard to find another Dallas Cowboy with the combination of size, speed, strength, and body control that Jaylon Smith possesses. At 25-years-old, he's coming into the prime of his career. His team has Super Bowl aspirations, and the biggest questions are pointed directly at the defense. Answering those questions means parsing out just how impactful defensive veterans like Smith can be in a new system.
During a conference call with the media on Tuesday, Smith made it clear what the vibe has been among the players after a long offseason of being apart. "It's been too long since we've won," Smith said, bluntly. "That's our focus."
The fans expect a different Cowboys team after failing to make the playoffs last season, and an almost completely revamped coaching staff has officially begun providing those changes. Head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan inherited Smith coming off of a Pro Bowl season. Their first move? Switching his position amid a transition to a 3-4 defense. Smith has essentially traded spots with Leighton Vander Esch. Smith will now technically be a weakside linebacker.
Asked about what this new position entails, Smith suggested that he might cover more of the field, fitting responsibilities for an elite athlete. "[The switch allows me to be] a lot more active, able to showcase my versatility. Roaming around a lot, being able to make things. Leighton will be more in the middle."
The switch is a return for Smith to the role that he played in college at Notre Dame where he was arguably the nation's top linebacker before injuring his knee in his final college game. Smith admitted that he's "excited about that" before noting the other big factor that training camp has him anxious for.
"I'm excited to have my partner back in Leighton, he's been through a lot. I know how that feels," Smith said. Vander Esch missed the final stretch of last season with a worrisome neck injury that required offseason surgery. Smith's knee injury in college required a year of rehabilitation and nearly put his career in jeopardy. The defense may be the side of the ball with the most question marks, but if both healthy and in a new system, Smith and Vander Esch could prove to be the two best young linebackers playing alongside each other in the NFL.
Many Cowboy fans have viewed Smith specifically as an enticing example of untapped potential. He can get to where he needs to quickly, and while his first four years in the league have been successful, perhaps the right system will unlock another level of defensive possibilities. "I'm versatile," Smith said Wednesday. "I can do multiple things, whether it's cover, stop the run, rush the passer; whatever the coach asks me to do I'm going to do it."
Smith is a leader of this Cowboys team. His progress isn't a nice bonus to the team; it's critical to the team's success. "We've got something to prove this year. Not only the defense but the whole team."