The 2018 Dallas Cowboys season seems to be on the brink of collapse, especially after the demoralizing overtime defeat they suffered at the hands of the Houston Texans on Sunday.
As much as Sunday hurt, and most of the Cowboys seem lost and broken, the linebackers have actually been arguably the best unit on the team. Rookie Leighton Vander Esch has been incredibly impressive, staking his early claim for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
I want to focus on former second round pick Jaylon Smith today, however. Smith, who suffered a horrific leg injury during his final collegiate game in January of 2016, finally looks healthy. He finally looks like himself on film, bursting from sideline to sideline and making touchdown saving tackles.
When you turn the film on from Sunday's loss you immediately appreciate what Jaylon Smith is doing. Smith had his best game as a pro last week, and it showed on each of his 12 combined tackles. Smith showed the burst and acceleration which we saw from him pre-injury at Notre Dame, working sideline to sideline to chase down the ever-elusive quarterback Deshaun Watson.
On one play in particular, Jaylon Smith hustled from his MIKE spot to meet Watson just shy of the goal line, knocking him out of bounds with a ferocious hit. This tackle came on fourth down and goal right before the first half as Houston was looking to take control of the night, and kept the Cowboys in the game for the time being.
During the draft process this year scouts and analysts constantly questioned if new Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was physical enough to defeat blockers at the professional level. He has been labeled a “run and chase” player, who may not love the physicality of the game. Of course, through the first five games of his career it's clear this isn't true, but Jaylon Smith could not be more opposite than this evaluation either.
Smith is not only fast and athletic enough to beat blockers to the spot, he is physical and strong enough to shed offensive lineman when they do meet at the point of attack. Once he beats those blocks he is also a sure-tackler, and proves why he should be the middle linebacker of the future in Dallas.
It remains fair to question the wait-and-see strategy a seemingly win-now Cowboys team took when they used a second round pick on the injured Jaylon Smith in 2016. But, now that he is healthy and absolutely balling, it's safe to say the Cowboys investment has paid off.
Let's hope he and Vander Esch can continue to grow together on the field for years to come.