FRISCO, Texas – It's been well-documented how far Jaylon Smith has come in his recovery from the devastating injury that impacted his 2016 draft stock. Smith has confirmed, along with Cowboys officials, that he no longer needs his support brace to practice or play.
It's worth noting what that workload looks like right now. Through two weeks of OTAs, Smith has been functioning as the Cowboys' primary middle linebacker. He runs with the first-team, while first-round draft pick Leighton Vander Esch has primarily worked with the second-team.
"In a perfect world, you've got three guys to play two spots, for your nickel and base stuff," said defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. "And then you've got your SAM 'backer – because that's different. So you're always looking."
Marinelli makes a great point about the Cowboys' linebacker depth. Injuries to Sean Lee, as well as Smith's gradual recovery process, hindered the linebacker corps in 2017. Having three capable options to play the two primary positions makes sense.
But with Vander Esch being selected No. 19 overall, there's been some speculation that Smith may kick out to the strong side position – a spot that has typically been manned by Damien Wilson.
Asked about that prospect, Marinelli didn't rule it out, but said he wants to create competition at the starting spots for the time being.
"That's maybe down the road as we go. Right now, we don't want to move guys around," he said. "We want to let guys compete for the starting jobs and do that. We want to keep the competition high, and we'll see as we go."* -David Helman*
Tapper Sits Out
Charles Tapper sat out of Wednesday's OTA, as Jason Garrett confirmed that the third-year defensive end suffered a concussion during Tuesday's practice.
This isn't the first time injuries have plagued Tapper. He has only appeared in one career game to date, as various injuries have cut short his first two seasons. Hopefully this setback is only a minor one.
Elsewhere, the Cowboys' list of absentees looked the same compared to last week. Zack Martin continues to sit out of practices while his contract extension is negotiated. David Irving is still absent as he works his way back into shape. Maliek Collins and Terrance Williams are recovering from foot injuries. Sean Lee and DeMarcus Lawrence took veteran's days.
Tyron Smith was present at practice, but he did not participate in any of the full-team repetitions. He said after practice that is was a coaching decision and not injury-related. -David Helman
Jax Is Back
A lot can change in a year, as Darius Jackson would be quick to tell you.
The Cowboys churned their roster on Wednesday by adding four players. Most notable among them was Jackson, who was a sixth-round draft pick for the organization just two years ago.
Not only that, but on his first day back in the Dallas locker room, Jackson acknowledged that Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of when he tore his ACL during OTAs with the Cleveland Browns.
"What's crazy is, the last time I had a helmet on was this exact day last year, in OTAs," he said.
Jackson was impressive enough to earn a spot in the running back room back in 2016. The Cowboys eventually released him in December, and Cleveland claimed him on the waiver wire.
He suffered the injury last spring and was released not long after his recovery.
"It's been a humbling experience. Full circle," he said. "I got released by the Browns. Obviously, after the draft there was a lot going on. I really never got a chance to be evaluated, I never put on a set of pads for the Browns."
Jackson had some workouts around the league in the past few months. As fate would have it, he wound up back in Dallas – where the Cowboys' 2016 draft class is now fully intact, as all nine picks are still on the roster.
"It's just been cool. Seeing everybody yesterday, they were very welcoming," he said. "It seems like I was just here, it seems like I never left."
The running back room has gotten a little bit younger since Jackson was last here. Ezekiel Elliott and Rod Smith are still here, but Jackson and Bo Scarbrough are replacing Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris.
With a healthy amount of life experience under his belt, Jackson said he's hungry to get to work. - David Helman
Dak Prescott made an effort to lose about 10 pounds this offseason with better diet, but offensive coordinator Scott Linehan says the trim 24-year-old starting quarterback has improved more than just his physique.
"He really, really worked on just his physical and mental conditioning this offseason," Linehan said. "He looks great. He's in great shape, probably the best shape he's been. He's always been in good shape, but he's really worked on that.
"And then he's really spent a lot of time on fundamental work, like all these guys do, so you see that improvement."
One area Prescott has focused on, Linehan says: his location in the pocket on a given snap and matching that with the designed protections by the offensive line.
"We've done some subtle things footwork-wise that we think is going to help," Linehan said, "and you see those things out here. Kind of speeds up the game a little bit for him in a good way."* -Rob Phillips*
In a brief role reversal, head coach Jason Garrett gave the media an interesting stat Wednesday: The Cowboys now have only three players on the roster who are 30 years or older: linebacker Sean Lee, kicker Dan Bailey and long snapper L.P. Ladouceur.
That means third-year pros such as running back Ezekiel Elliott are suddenly among the most experienced players on the team.
"It's definitely something I've been thinking about, Year 3," Elliott said. "It seems like I was just a rookie not too long ago. I'm just trying to do my best to help bring these rookies along and show them the way."
Elliott says he's focused on being more vocal as a leader this season. -Rob Phillips