No matter who the Cowboys draft in 2017, none of those rookies may bring the same level of intrigue to next season as linebacker Jaylon Smith. A second-round pick last year, Smith has elite potential but an ongoing knee issue that hurt his draft stock and is still a cause for worry.
Jaylon’s talent, which most feel would’ve put him in the top five of the 2016 draft class, has Cowboys fans salivating. However, they are also rightly concerned about just how many eggs Dallas are going to put into his basket.
For example, check out this question I received on Twitter recently:
The Cowboys already used a second-round pick, the 34th pick overall, to acquire Jaylon Smith. That is a big egg on its own. What’s more, not signing or drafting other linebacker prospects because of your hope in Smith’s progress is its own form of investment. The more trust that the Cowboys put in Jaylon, the worse they might get burned.
The team expects for Jaylon to a contributor in 2017. Stephen Jones said the following a few weeks ago:
“I think the sky’s the limit. I think he’s got a great opportunity — if he keeps on his current path — to be a dominant player for us. Now to say I expect that when he’s not there yet? That’s tough to have that expectation. But I think we do expect him to contribute and be a big part of our defense this year.”
There’s a fine line between expectation and hope. Relying on Jaylon Smith to step into a starting role, presumably as the middle linebacker, is not without danger. Even if his body holds up, Smith would still be a redshirt rookie two years removed from playing. For all his potential, he may not be ready to start just yet.
The good news is that Dallas still has Anthony Hitchens, who has started 26 games for them over the last three years. While not spectacular, Hitchens has been solid and is a decent insurance policy for 2017.
However, 2017 is also the final year of Hitchens’ rookie contract. If Jaylon Smith doesn’t pan out then Dallas will be facing having to overpay to keep Hitchens out of necessity. Barring a major surge by Mark Nzeocha as a linebacker prospect, they would have a bare cupboard and no leverage.
This is where the draft comes into play. Dallas has several reasons to be motivated to add talent at linebacker, and perhaps even as high as another second-round pick.
- Insurance against Jaylon Smith’s career never taking off
- Additional depth replacing departures of Justin Durant and Andrew Gachkar
- Replacement for Anthony Hitchens in 2018
- Additional competition for Hitchens and Damien Wilson for 2017 starting role at SAM
This is a little further down the road, but also consider that Sean Lee only has so much longer to play. Lee is currently signed through 2019 and will turn 34 after that season. Assuming he plays out that contract, Dallas may be ready for a young player. Plus, given Sean’s injury history, there’s reason to think they may need a new player even sooner.
Clearly, Dallas has plenty of reason to look at linebackers in the 2017 NFL Draft. The uncertainty around Jaylon Smith is a big factor, but there are several others we’ve outlined that should motivate the Cowboys.
As if we didn’t have enough defensive needs, right?