Position Battles: Jaylon Smith Continues Fight To Return From 2016 Knee Injury

(Editor's Note: The NFL Draft has come and gone. Now it's time to see what the Cowboys have to work with. The roster is nearly full and that should mean a healthy dose of competition – at all positions. Over the next two weeks, the writers of DallasCowboys.com will focus on each position to find the most intriguing battles as we head into the offseason practices. Today, we continue the series with linebacker.)

Battle To Watch: Let's put a little twist on this category, because the Cowboys have a unique situation at the linebacker position. Jaylon Smith has been fighting an individual battle for the last year and a half: the struggle to return from a devastating knee injury on New Year's Day 2016 that likely robbed him of top-five draft status. The Cowboys took Smith at the top of the second round knowing he likely wouldn't play a single down as a rookie due to a torn ACL and nerve damage. Indeed, he didn't, but the Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones recently said the team got "tremendously encouraging" news about his rehab and sensations with the damaged nerve.

It's just too early to project what Smith's role might be for the Cowboys in 2017. Anthony Hitchens was a capable starter at middle linebacker last season, and the biggest focus for Smith right now is his continued work in the voluntary offseason program and then OTA's later this month (Jason Garrett said he also anticipates Smith being eligible to participate in next weekend's rookie minicamp). If the nerve regenerates over time, Smith has a better chance of being the dominant defender he was at Notre Dame. But for now, his rehab with the athletic training staff and his work with the brace on has really pleased the Cowboys. Progress.

Don't Forget About: Mark Nzeocha. The 2015 seventh-round pick has dealt with injuries in each of his first two seasons: a torn ACL from college that sidelined him most of his rookie season, followed by a sore Achilles' tendon last preseason that lingered into the first month of the regular season. With the Cowboys resting starters in the Week 17 finale, Nzeocha got his first playing time of the season (16 defensive snaps; four tackles). The Cowboys haven't re-signed veterans Andrew Gachkar and Justin Durant this offseason, and Rolando McClain wasn't part of the team last year. There appears to be opportunity for Nzeocha to step into a Gachkar-type role: core special-teamer and reserve linebacker who can play multiple spots. The Cowboys like his athleticism and range for a linebacker his size (6-3, 240).

Bubble Watch: It's barely May so it's very early in the game. Every player has a chance to win a spot and even the most experienced players will have to earn their spot. But for now, here's how an unofficial depth chart might look:

Locks:
Sean Lee
Anthony Hitchens
Kyle Wilber
Damien Wilson
Jaylon Smith

Contenders:
Mark Nzeocha

Long Shots:
Jeremiah George
John Lotulelei

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