As of last Monday, all of the players who started the year on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list or the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list are eligible to return to practice. The Cowboys have three players in this pool:
Unlike with McFadden, who told a reporter recently that he was ready to return, we haven’t heard an update on Hanna or Smith’s status. We’re not able to discuss their potential return with any real certainty, but both would play important enough roles that we should still give it some consideration.
Jaylon Smith, the 34th overall pick in last April’s NFL Draft, is still working his way back from a major knee injury during the Fiesta Bowl. Despite the expectation that he would not play in 2016, the Cowboys drafted Smith because of his elite potential. Smith was projected as a top-five talent in the 2016 draft class.
This past Monday began a six-week window that the Cowboys have to return their PUP/NFI players to practice. If the players can’t return to practice by the end of Week 12, Dallas must either put them on Injured Reserve or release them.
Once the players return to practice, they do not count against the 53-man roster for up to three weeks. Again, the Cowboys would have to release or put the player on IR if they’re not ready to be put on the active roster after that time.
The door has never been closed on Jaylon Smith being able to play this year. Hope that he might return has been left out there by comments from the front office.
Despite his long absence, Smith would be a welcome addition to the Cowboys’ linebacker corps. Sean Lee is the only stable entity in the group. Dallas has cobbled together a depth chart at the middle and strong side positions.
Veteran Justin Durant may be the Cowboys’ best linebacker after Sean Lee, but age and conditioning have prevented him from having a full-time role. Perhaps the bye week will allow Durant to get his body ready for a larger workload over the rest of the season.
While serviceable in their roles, guys like Anthony Hitchens, Kyle Wilber, and Andrew Gachkar are not playmakers. None of them are exceptional in pass coverage, the area where Jaylon Smith is especially gifted.
Even if he’s still adjusting to the NFL and only getting limited reps, Smith’s talent could still make a difference in certain situations. He and Sean Lee would make an imposing duo in the Cowboys’ much-used nickel formation, especially against the pass.
As it stands, the idea of Jaylon Smith playing in 2016 is still more fantasy than reality. However, the Cowboys put him on the NFI list because they still had hope.
Until we hear otherwise, that hope is still alive.