Free agency is here, but the majority of the 2019 roster is already in place. In the coming weeks, DallasCowboys.com will feature players who are currently under contract for next season, analyzing their past season and their future prospects.
Today, we continue the series with linebacker Jaylon Smith.
What's Been Good: Smith played all 16 games in 2017, a triumphant return from his career-threatening knee injury in Notre Dame's 2016 bowl game. But the Cowboys always felt Smith would take a significant step forward in 2018, and that's exactly what happened. He started all 16 games at middle linebacker and played a remarkable 95 percent of the Cowboys' defensive snaps. He ranked second on the team with 150 tackles, trailing only rookie Leighton Vander Esch's 176 according to coaches' film. Just as important, he and Vander Esch emerged as leaders while defensive captain Sean Lee missed nine games with hamstring injuries.
What's Been Bad: There are two games in particular that the Cowboys' defense would probably like back most: the December loss at Indianapolis and the divisional-round playoff loss to the L.A. Rams. Dallas ranked fifth in run defense in 2018, allowing only 94.6 yards per game. But they allowed a whopping 451 combined rushing yards against the Colts and Rams, their only two losses in the final two months of the season. Smith has a vital role on defense as a pre-snap communicator from the middle linebacker spot. It was a learning experience for everyone involved, including the 23-year-old.
2018 Highlight: Any questions about Smith's speed and quickness post-injury were silenced on Dec. 23, when he scooped up a forced fumble by Randy Gregory and ran untouched 69 yards down the AT&T Stadium sideline for a touchdown. It was the Cowboys' first defensive touchdown in 2018, the longest defensive touchdown by a Cowboys player in eight years, and the first fumble recovered for a touchdown by a Cowboys player since Anthony Spencer at Washington in 2014. The Cowboys took a 14-3 lead after Smith's touchdown and never trailed again.
What's Next: Smith is signed through 2019, after which he's scheduled to be a restricted free agent. But the Cowboys clearly would like to keep Smith and Vander Esch together for a long time. Lee is also back for his 10th season with the club and will continue to be a sounding board for the young linebacker duo.
Jaylon Smith ended any remaining doubts about his on-field potential in 2018. We take a closer look at his breakout season in our latest Star Evaluation.
Bryan Broaddus' Bottom Line: What a difference a couple of years make in a player's career. I was one of those guys who believed there was no way the Cowboys should draft Jaylon Smith. I have been wrong about players before but never so wrong in this instance. Where I misevaluated the situation was the resolve in which Smith had to once again play. Smith couldn't have been in better care with Dr. Dan Cooper and Britt Brown looking after him. There was no question the journey was long and hard, but all involved were willing to see it through and that was my mistake. Game by game we started to see the Jaylon Smith of Notre Dame. He was a different player. It was the physicality along with the lateral agility and mobility that was such a major part of his game that was back. Smith was no longer a liability on the field, the staff took full advantage of his talent by going with him down after down, and he rewarded them for their confidence. I was impressed with how the staff used him as a blitzer. The staff found a way to use him as a blitzer, which played into that physicality I spoke about earlier. He had a nice feel for how to attack the pocket, all while helping his teammates have success as well. The medical staff told me initially that 2018 was going to be Smith's season. With his health improving each day, I promise you I'm not going to bet against him to once again be outstanding paired with Leighton Vander Esch.