Spagnola: With Hitchens Gone, About To Discover If Jaylon Is Ace In The Hole

*        FRISCO, Texas –*And now it's time to find out.

         Time to find out what the Cowboys think of Jaylon Smith.

         Where he is at physically.

         Just how much that peroneal nerve stretching from his knee to his foot causing the drop foot ailment he played with through this past season has regenerated.

         If they think their 2016 second-round draft-choice gamble is ready to play 60 snaps a game for 16 games or if the strapping young man with an unquestionable work ethic still is a part-time player.

         Why, if this were a game of chance, then it's time for the Cowboys to turn over their cards, to show us just where they believe – project – Smith is in his third NFL season, following the major surgery in his final game at Notre Dame when suffering the knee injury dropping him from a projected top-five pick in the draft to the 34th pick where the Cowboys made this bet in the second round:

In due time, we think Jaylon Smith's drop-foot ailment will dissipate to the point he will be able to play to the level of a second-round draft choice we used on him and be better than just another linebacker.

From the beginning, during what amounted to Smith's red-shirt rookie season when he spent the year continuing to rehab not only the early January ACL surgery but also learning to work through the peroneal nerve disability, the word to me was always 2018. That 2018 would be the telltale season.

Not 2017 when he would play his first snaps of football following his devastating Fiesta Bowl injury. Not when he would eventually play in all 16 games this past season, starting six. Not when he would play 578 snaps in those 16 games, amounting to 54 percent of the Cowboys' defensive snaps that season.

No, 2018.

First, in 2017 he was still playing with a brace on his foot, helping him to make contact with the ground when he couldn't always involuntarily have that feel in his foot. Second, he hadn't played any real, contact football for like 20 months, a significant hurdle in itself, let alone still dealing with a slowly regenerating nerve.

"He probably played more than we wanted him to play at the outset of the season when Hitch was hurt and then Sean was hurt – he had to play a lot of snaps," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett recently said, making reference to starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens missing the first four games of the season with his tibial plateau fracture and Sean Lee missing five games and parts of two others with hamstring issues.

Now it wasn't as if he was a total liability out there. Smith did finish second on the Cowboys with 99 total tackles, just 19 behind Lee, the team leader. He did have one sack, four tackles for losses and four QB pressures. Impressively encouraging.

But problem was, when he was forced in games to play fulltime he seemed to have problems playing in space; seemed to have problems going laterally or having to backpedal in coverage. Seemed to overreact against the run. All more so than when he was limited to say, 25 to 30 snaps in a game.

Even Garrett admits, "He played his best football when his snaps were more limited and in situations where he was most comfortable playing next to (Lee and/or Hitchens). You got to remember he was a rookie."

Well, the Cowboys just lost their wildcard from the linebacker deck, throwing a big, uh, hitch, into their ideal linebacker plans for the coming season. Because in an ideal world, the Cowboys would have re-signed Hitchens to keep this three-linebacker rotation with Lee, Hitchens and Smith between middle, weak, strong and change-up formations that would have also included strong-side starter Damien Wilson.

But that hope turned into brutal reality immediately when free agency opened on March 14: The Kansas City Chiefs signed Hitch to a five-year, $45 million deal that could, with incentives, expand to $49 million. And it wasn't so much the total package the Cowboys couldn't stomach to match. It was the fact the Chiefs gave Hitchens a $14 million signing bonus and stuffed $21.29 million of guarantees into the first two years of the deal. Too rich for the Cowboys' blood.

No more safety net.

And within the next two months, encompassing the continuation of free agency and the April 26-28 NFL Draft, when the Cowboys turn over their cards we'll find out if they truly believe they have a middle linebacker ace or if that card they are holding close to the vest is merely a 10.

During the season the Cowboys were always complimentary of Smith, saying that just playing with his drop foot was remarkable. That he worked hard. That his effort was inspiring in spite of what many predicted prior to the draft that he'd never play football again. But the Cowboys never really decidedly commented on his caliber of play.

So when pressed at the NFL Scouting Combine on if the club thinks Smith is ready for a fulltime role, Garrett sort of hedged his bets, saying, "I think physically he will be better and better as we go . . . he does have versatility, he can play any of the spots . . . he might be a Sam in base but you want to make sure he has a role when we play our two-linebacker defense as well."

That was before the Cowboys lost Hitchens.

 At this point, would seem to be a leap of faith if the Cowboys think they could head into the opener with Lee on the weak side, Smith in the middle and Wilson on the strong side, then just fill in the rest with some inexpensive depth guys.

         That would mean at the very least the Cowboys must sign a versatile veteran linebacker, one capable of playing the middle and, ideally, can back up on the weak side – lessen the impact of Hitchen's departure. But that costs. Thought maybe a guy such as Redskins middle man Zach Brown could be a possibility. He's a guy who is entering his seventh season, led the Skins with 127 tackles in 13 games, had been a Pro Bowler in Buffalo the year before and has the speed to help on the outside. Plus, he only made $2.3 million on a one-year deal in 2017.

         Ha. After a short flirtation in free agency, drawing attention around the league, Brown ended up re-signing with Washington on a reported three-year, $24 million deal. So much for short-term, inexpensive insurance.

         The Cowboys must keep kicking tires in free agency for a better linebacker alternative to Justin Durant, the veteran backup released the final week of the season to get WR Lance Lenoir on the 53-man roster for future considerations.

         Then there is the draft, and am thinking a versatile linebacker, one capable of playing in the middle and the weak side has become a high priority. First- or second-round high. Because even if Smith emerges as that ace, he can always play, as Garrett said, on the strong side if a rookie is capable of immediately taking over in the middle.

         Just would behoove the Cowboys to cover the backsides there.

         "It's the second year," Garrett says of Smith physically improving while playing. "We're certainly hopeful that can happen for him, and we certainly believe it happened over the course of (last) year. He got physically better and we think that will continue."

         But again, hope is one thing.

         Think is one thing.

         But knowing . . . .

         The Cowboys are about to reveal that card in the hole.

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