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Phillips: Jaylon Smith's Approach, Attitude Make Him An Easy Guy To Root For

FRISCO, Texas – The NFL Combine is less than a week away, a week-long job interview on and off the field for this year's top draft prospects.

It's an event Jaylon Smith would've aced last year had he been healthy.

Instead, Smith spent the entire pre-draft process injured. He has dedicated the last 15 months and counting toward returning from the dreadful knee injury he suffered in his final college game last New Year's Day.

Since his redshirt rookie season ended, the Cowboys' 2016 second-round pick – a likely top-five selection last April if not for a torn ACL in his knee and nerve damage – has personal workout videos posted on his official Twitter account. They show evidence of progress he's made through his diligent work with the Cowboys' athletic training staff: lateral movements, quickness, change of direction.

As Smith continues down the road to recovery, it still remains to be seen what he'll be able to contribute to the Cowboys' linebacker group in 2017.

This much is certain: he's an easy guy to root for.

"We had a great feel for what he is as an individual," team owner/general manager Jerry Jones said in January. "Now this guy is a leader. He's got the stuff that Dak's got in terms of leadership."

He's got an incredibly positive attitude, too – extraordinary for a player in his situation. The "clear-eye view" Smith lives by – "a focused vision and a determined belief in earned dreams" was his definition back in training camp – clearly helps him push through the toughest challenge of his football career.

He has taken the right approach to his rehab and adjusted to wearing a brace that assists movement with the case of drop foot that accompanies the nerve damage.

The Cowboys never officially ruled Smith out for the year until he wasn't activated to the 53-man roster from the Non-Football Injury list by the December deadline. He always was a long shot to get back on the field in 2016, though. Nerve damage aside, he also had the ACL injury requiring months of rehab. Consider fellow Cowboys linebacker Mark Nzeocha's ACL injury while at Wyoming in October 2014; the Cowboys didn't activate him to play as NFL rookie until the following November.

They certainly were going to take a deliberate approach with Smith, too. The ACL healed well, but it's a waiting game for that nerve to fully regenerate on its own time. It can't be forced.

It's not an all-or-nothing matter, either. If it can regenerate even by a certain percentage, that could help Smith's functionality on the field. The brace is there for support, though Smith has yet to practice since the injury. OTAs this spring would be the first test.

Regardless, though, the Cowboys have been pleased with the way he's handled this adversity.

"We're excited about the progress he's made up to this point. He still has a ways to go," head coach Jason Garrett said in January. "But he's certainly done everything he can to give himself a chance to come back and play at a high level. He still has many legs of the journey ahead of him, but he's going about it the right way. It's a day-by-day, week-by-week approach. He's done a great job up this point. We're excited about his future."

That clear-eye view is pretty admirable.

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