You could argue that no player came into the Cowboys 2017 training camp with more intrigue than linebacker Jaylon Smith. The second-round pick last year, Smith's delayed debut from a major knee injury has been anticipated for a long time. Everyone is behind him; a player who seems as exceptional personally as he does in talent.
It is who Jaylon Smith seems to be as a person, driven and dedicated, that we're going to look at today. These traits make him valuable not just as a linebacker for 16-19 games a year, but in every facet of the team's activities. The example he sets can impact the entire team for many years to come, making his successful return all the more important for the Cowboys organization.
The Cowboys are currently transitioning between eras. The move from Tony Romo to Dak Prescott at quarterback was a major shift, but there are still veteran players in key positions of leadership. Jason Witten and Dez Bryant on offense, Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick on defense; these older players still have some of the biggest voices on the team.
This leadership structure is going to be changing in short order. 2017 may very well be Witten's last year before retirement. Scandrick, who turned 30 in February, may only have one or two seasons left before the Cowboys will look to shed his contract. Dez Bryant turns 29 in November and has to keep playing at a high level to avoid his own cap casualty.
Sean Lee, easily the Cowboys' best defensive player and the captain of the group, turned 31 just about a week ago. His days as an elite linebacker are numbered, and the new reality of professional football with rising concussion and CTE awareness makes the old timetables obsolete. Players are walking away from the game younger than ever, and Lee has a personal history with concussions that makes an earlier retirement very possible.
As these veterans make their exits over the next few seasons, it will be critical for young player to step into those vacant leadership roles. The offense already has Dak Prescott and the stalwarts on the offensive line. The defense needs guys of similar caliber, who can set the example off the field as much as on it; who can set the pace for their teammates in how they approach the game.
Jaylon Smith is as poised to assume that role as anyone on defense. With other young studs like safety Byron Jones and defensive tackle Maliek Collins, Smith is part of what could be a strong nucleus for the Cowboys defense for the next decade. The strong character that got Jaylon drafted in the first place, that gave Dallas confidence he could come back from such a catastrophic injury, is something they want in the team's foundation.
Perhaps the recent issues with suspensions and player conduct in Dallas are what especially bring this to mind. Obviously, nobody can really stop their teammates from making mistakes. The idea of “culture” in overrated in the NFL; grown men with millions of dollars are going to behave how they choose. But if even one other player is positively effected by Jaylon's example, that's a whole new kind of value.
So, while our focus has been on the ways that Jaylon Smith can help the Cowboys on the field, his potential impact in the locker room is also a major aspect of what he offers. It's not just about getting great return on a second-round pick, but continuing to put the pieces in place for a lasting foundation. Jaylon can be the future of the Cowboys defense in more ways than one, and that's why we're all rooting so hard for him.