This is a dilemma. Feels like a big risk of jumping the gun, or getting ahead of our skis. What is this, Olympic biathlon?
The problem is, if one waits too long to begin assessing the impact of Jaylon Smith, one risks playing irretrievable catch-up. Absolutely nothing we have seen in a year-plus from the Cowboys' young linebacker should make anyone think otherwise.
The ligament and nerve damage Smith sustained in the Fiesta Bowl more than a year and a half ago (against Ohio State and Ezekiel Elliott) was supposed to have ended a brilliant career before it started. Smith was such a dominant player at Notre Dame that he was thought to be a cinch top-five selection in the 2016 draft. The Cowboys might have been forced to choose between drafting him and Elliott with the fourth overall pick. But the nerve damage that left him with drop foot was thought by many to be a career-ender.
Buoyed by the report from Dr. Dan Cooper, the Cowboys' physician who performed Smith's surgery, and interviews with folks at Notre Dame plus Smith himself, Dallas took a calculated risk and drafted Smith anyway in the second round. The fourth pick in the second round is a premium pick. That one took onions.
The stories of Smith's literally incredible rehab and inner resolve are already legion. The young man's faith and outlook were almost unheard of, and have been chronicled. And will be again.
But watching him in training camp in Oxnard, Calif., watching him cut and move and gain ground and speed day by day, here were the questions that came to your humble correspondent: (1) When was the last time there was this kind of buzz for a Cowboys draftee on defense before he took his first snap? And (2) if Smith could make it back, when was the last time they had two linebackers like him and Sean Lee on the field together?
There are no definitive answers. But we are here to help.
In the draft department, remember, the question is about the buzz before the player took a snap, not what he became. So the answer can't be DeMarcus Ware. Cowboys Nation didn't know Ware seriously before the draft. Heck, Bill Parcells couldn't make up his mind between Ware and Shawne Merriman.
It can't be Russell Maryland, despite Russ being the overall No. 1 pick in 1991. Nobody wanted the No. 1 pick. The Cowboys only opted to trade for it because they wanted Rocket Ismail, who went to Canada.
It can't be Greg Ellis. The Cowboys took Ellis instead of Randy Moss because they couldn't have another behavioral dramatist in 1998. Ellis was a good pick, but no buzz.
It *could *be Roy Williams. Williams had lots of notoriety having played at Oklahoma and he was a big-play safety. But he was a safety. A popular pick, but subjectively, not the buzz that surrounded Smith before he took that first snap against the Giants.
Who then? I'll tell you who.
Randy White. In this humble opinion, Jaylon Smith has created the biggest buzz of any Cowboys defensive draftee before he took a snap since the club took the "Manster" with the second overall pick in 1975. I was here then. I was at his first press conference. There was a buzz. Like Jaylon's. Bigger. And let's not forget they both don the same jersey number in 54.
Now the linebacker question. Remember, Sean Lee is an All-Pro. They've had a number of really good linebackers through the years. But the position has rarely been one on which premium picks were spent.
Jimmy Johnson drafted Robert Jones in the first round, but Robert might not be the fourth linebacker on this team. Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson, who started with Lee last year, are good players. But they're not what Smith looks like he could be.
Don't say Ware. He was 3-4 outside 'backer, primarily an edge rusher. A Hall of Famer, but not as a true linebacker. Bradie James was a good player. Dat Nguyen was a really good player, and they played together in 2005. Neither of them is Smith or Lee.
The Super Bowl teams of the 1990s had sound technicians at linebacker, good team players, puzzle pieces. Nothing wrong with that. Need 'em. Not all-stars. Ken Norton was a really, really good player. You would of had to have someone a little better than him to pair with him to make this comparison, and they didn't. If Thomas Henderson had not had his off-field issues, he'd have been in that range. He and Bob Breunig would've really been a terrific pair. But Breunig was slightly undersized and relied a lot on brains. Love them both, but sorry, no.
You see where this is going? And remember, we're projecting Jaylon Smith. He's not there yet. But he looks the part of a central-casting linebacker more than anyone they've had since Henderson. His intensity, intelligence, desire and physicality are simply imposing. A fitting partner for Lee. So what's the answer?
The answer, it says here, is that if Jaylon Smith truly becomes Jaylon Smith again, and he is paired with Lee, it will be the best linebacking duo the Cowboys have fielded together since Lee Roy Jordan and Chuck Howley, who played together from 1966-1972. They're both in the Ring of Honor. Howley was a Super Bowl MVP and Tom Landry once called him "maybe the smartest linebacker I've ever been around." Jordan was Lee, the captain, the brains, the conscience, the engine. His college coach, Bear Bryant, called him "perhaps the best player I've ever coached."
I can't prove I'm right, and you can't prove I'm wrong. But you're going to have to come up with some evidence. Smith said after his first game, "The real is back. I'm the real, and I'm back." He would know himself better than anyone, but the rest of us still have to see it.
So far it looks like Jaylon Smith is the most amazing comeback story ever, and a good player. In about a month he may be a lot more than that. If he is, you read it here first: biggest defensive buzz since Randy White; best linebacker duo since Howley and Jordan.
How much fun will this be?