The Dallas Cowboys took a chance in the 2016 NFL Draft when they decided to select Jaylon Smith, a linebacker out of Notre Dame, with their second-round draft pick. Smith was undoubtedly one of the most talented players in the 2016 draft class, but there were concerns he may not be able to play a single down in the NFL.
A devastating knee injury nearly ended Jaylon Smith's NFL career before it even began. Fortunately though, due to his diligent approach to rehab and mental fortitude, he attacked his rehabilitation head on and it's looking as if he could make a full recovery.
“I'm going to be better than Notre Dame 100 percent,” he said recently at the Cowboys' seventh annual Reliant Home Run Derby. “People thought I'd never play the game again, and I've been able to accomplish that. Each and every day I've gotten better. Last year each game I improved. It just feels great to continue to be able to improve my health.”
I don't know about you, but if Jaylon Smith is anywhere close to the player he was at Notre Dame, he's going to be even better in 2018. But, I think he's going to be even better and I'll tell you why.
Confidence and Experience
For Jaylon Smith, being able to play an entire 16 game season after suffering what many thought to be a career ending injury probably did wonders for his psyche. That alone should make him a better football player in 2018 because it builds up his confidence.
A confident player is able to just go out and do his job and not have to worry about anything else. I can almost guarantee he was a little bit worried about how his knee would hold up, at the very least it was something that was stuck in the back of his mind. Now all he has to worry about is his preparation. Thankfully, that's where a year of experience comes in handy.
While redshirting his rookie season, he was able to pick the brain of Sean Lee. Learning how to prepare from one the best was probably invaluable for his development. But, there's nothing like getting out there and actually getting game experience. He now understands the speed of the game and can better prepare himself both physically and mentally to hold up for an entire season. All in all, the confidence and experience he gained so far should make him much better player this season.
More Playing Time
With Anthony Hitchens sidelined due to injury at the start of the 2017 season, the Dallas Cowboys had no choice but to throw Jaylon Smith into the fire as a starter. He clearly had quite a bit of rust to knockoff, but everyone could see flashes of the player that was once considered a surefire top five draft pick in 2016 NFL Draft.
Once Hitchens returned from his injury, the Cowboys thought it best for both he and Smith to split time. Even as a rotational player, Smith managed to rack up 99 total tackles (according to coaches film), finishing second in tackles only behind Sean Lee.
More playing time doesn't always equate to better performance, but I wouldn't be surprised if Jaylon Smith leads the team in tackles in 2018. It's unclear exactly what position he will play this year, but no matter what his role has, we should expect to see much more of his signature swipe celebration.
No More Limitations
Jaylon Smith played all 16 games in 2017 with an AFO brace that help support his drop foot condition caused by nerve damage. Fortunately, it's looking as if that will no longer be required, which means he shouldn't have any limitations moving forward. This alone should make him a much better player.
Watching Smith play last year you may have noticed that he was much better when he was moving forward then he was moving side to side. With the AFO brace it limited his movement and flexibility side to side, but since that is no longer required, he should be a much better sideline to sideline linebacker in 2018.
Some of Jaylon Smith's best attributes as a linebacker while at Notre Dame was his ability to play all over the field as a traditional LB and even as a pass rusher. Regaining his flexibility and movement will help him return to his collegiate form, and quite possibly exceed it. I'd expect the Dallas Cowboys to use him in a variety roles on defense, much like they did at Notre Dame.