With free agency looming, roster turnover isn't far away. However, a significant portion of the 2020 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:
It's been a long and winding road since the second day of the 2016 NFL Draft, so it's easy to lose sight of just what a success Jaylon Smith's career has become.
The Cowboys made him the No. 34 overall pick in that draft, and while they had cause for optimism about his recovery from a massive knee injury, they had no way to know for sure if he would ever play football again, let alone do it at an elite level.
Fast forward to 2020, and there's no question the gamble has paid off. Smith just finished his third season in the lineup and his second season as a full-time starter, finishing with 159 tackles and earning a trip to his first Pro Bowl.
Smith's future looks so bright that the Cowboys were willing to offer him a six-year, $68 million contract extension back in August, securing him under contract through the 2025 season.
Drafting Smith was a risky decision back in 2016, and he now looks poised to be a centerpiece to the Dallas defense for some time to come.
What's Been Bad:
All of that good stuff said, there comes a time to differentiate between the story and the reality of the situation.
Regardless of whether or not he made the Pro Bowl, Smith took a step back in 2019 – as did the Cowboys' entire linebacker corps. What was supposed to be the team's strongest position was compromised when Leighton Vander Esch went down with a neck injury, and it was further complicated by Smith's own inconsistencies.
The explosive plays from 2018 were not as common, and Smith struggled at times in coverage – particularly in instances that had him moving laterally, rather than downhill.
On top of that, he drew the ire of fans and media alike for a perceived fixation on showboating. It was not well received when Smith broke out his famous "Swipe" celebration following a fumble recovery in Chicago – even though the Cowboys trailed the Bears, 24-7, and boasted a 6-6 record on the season.
"The Swipe is so much more than a celebration," Smith said at the time. "I'm trying to eradicate all the negative energy that's happened in the past and trying to create some momentum to help propel us forward."
It's probably a classic example of the snowball effect that comes with losing. The Cowboys stumbled to a disappointing 8-8 record, and Smith's own struggles felt emblematic of a frustrating season.
Two things can be true at the same time. Smith played well enough to reach the Pro Bowl in 2019, but his overall efforts were disappointing relative to the expectations.
In the same vein, Smith can still be a promising young player despite a disappointing season. He is still one of the younger players on this roster, as he does not turn 25 until this coming summer. He has played 48 games and tallied 344 tackles with 7.5 sacks and four total takeaways in just three seasons on the field. There's plenty to feel good about here.
Chief among the reasons to feel good is the arrival of a new coaching staff. First-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has been coaching in the NFL since 1987, and he has spent 25 of those 32 years coaching defense.
Most recently, Nolan coached linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, where he worked with one of the best linebackers in football in Demario Davis. If anyone can work with Smith to get the best possible results, it's probably him.
Plenty of other coaching decisions will impact Smith's future, as well. With any luck, the Cowboys will use this offseason to invest in some heavier defensive tackles – the type of space-eating players who can keep blockers off of linebackers, freeing guys like Smith and Vander Esch to make more plays.
In addition, it doesn't sound like a bad idea to use Smith's natural athleticism as part of the pass rush. As both a blitzer and a pass rusher, he has the ability to help the Cowboys get to the quarterback.
All of this is to say: Jaylon Smith is still in the early stages of his career. Whatever struggles he went through in 2019, there's plenty of reason to believe he can develop into the cornerstone player the Cowboys paid him to be last summer.