Star Evaluation: Overcoming Challenges, Keith Smith Is Now Dependable

The roster turnover is already underway. Free agency has now begun and the 2017 NFL Draft isn't far away. Over the next few weeks, the Cowboys will lose and replace a sizable portion of their roster.

For every new face, however, there are dozens of familiar ones who will return to begin a new campaign. From established veterans to second-year players, the vast majority of the Cowboys' 2017 team is already on the roster. In the coming weeks, the staff of DallasCowboys.com will preview those players, analyzing where they've been and where they're going.

Today we'll continue the series with fullback Keith Smith.

What's Been Good: If nothing else, you have to admire Smith's desire and commitment. This is a player who was signed in 2014 as a rookie free agent after going undrafted, and then over the next two seasons was waived no less than six times, bouncing back and forth between the active roster and the Cowboys' practice squad. Listed as a linebacker, he appeared in 15 games over that stretch, although his work came primarily on special teams.

So prior to the 2016 season, when the coaching staff approached him about giving it a go at fullback, he figured why not. Anything to get on the field, right?

Giving credit to his work ethic, the transition proved to be a relatively smooth one. Not only did he win the fullback job in training camp, he went on to appear in all 16 games, doing his part in a running attack that saw Ezekiel Elliott lead the league with 1,631 rushing yards.

Smith actually touched the ball just five times, but three of those went for first downs, including his second career catch, which was a 14-yard reception in a 24-17 win at San Francisco in Week 4. And he continued to contribute on special teams, posting five tackles for the season.

What's Been Bad: Some of this is simply out of Smith's hands. The fullback, once a mainstay in NFL offenses, has been creeping toward extinction in this pass-happy era of football. While Smith was largely effective when on the field, in truth he only took part in 12.8 percent of the Cowboys' offensive snaps.

Gone are the days of Daryl "Moose" Johnston, who ran the ball 67 times in 1989 and caught 50 passes in 1993. Never mind the likes of Robert Newhouse, Walt Garrison or even Don Perkins, players who were called fullbacks, but were a featured part of the Dallas offense back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Smith is going to get better – remember, this was his first season ever as a fullback – but there is always going to be a debate about whether or not the position is even needed.

2016 Highlight: Fullbacks rarely stand out. It's the nature of the business. But that doesn't mean they can't make an impact. Take the Cowboys home game against rival Philadelphia in Week 8. On the stat sheet, Smith was credited with just one catch for one yard, but as Bryan Broaddus pointed out in his "Film Room" segment on DallasCowboys.com, there was so much more to his game.

Midway through the first quarter, with Dallas trailing 3-0, Dak Prescott dropped back to pass on second-and-10 from his own 25-yard line. The Eagles blitzed, and although Smith was lined up in the backfield to the right of Prescott, he came across the pocket to the left to pick up safety Rodney McLeod, who had a clear shot at the quarterback. With the block executed perfectly, Prescott stepped up and threw a 53-yard bomb to Dez Bryant down the right sideline. Three plays later, the Cowboys were in the end zone and on their way to an eventual 29-23 overtime victory.

This was just one example of what Smith brought to the Cowboys during their 13-3 run last season. He didn't get the accolades of his big-name teammates, but he filled an important role.

What's Next: Once again, Smith will enter the 2017 campaign needing to prove himself. But not only will he have to fend off any would-be fullback contenders, he'll also have to fight simply for his position. Will the Cowboys carry a fullback? Can a tight end handle those extra blocking duties? Or does the team continue down the path of so many others and simply use that roster spot to address other needs?

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and his staff seem to enjoy the advantages of having a fullback on hand, and they certainly were pleased with Smith's effort last year. He'll go into camp as the frontrunner to serve as Elliott's lead blocker, but he won't be able to rest easy.

Then again, nothing has been easy for Smith to this point in his career and he's met every challenge. There's no reason to think he won't again.

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