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How Much Can Cowboys Rely on Jaylon Smith in 2018?

Jess Haynie

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Jaylon Smith

There has been an assumption since the 2016 draft that Linebacker Jaylon Smith, if he could overcome his college knee injury, would eventually take over as a defensive star for the Dallas Cowboys. 2018 has been the target for that emergence, but is it fair to expect so much already?

After spending all of his rookie season rehabbing, Smith debuted in 2017 as the NFL equivalent of a "redshirt" player in college. The best news from his season was health; Jaylon played in all 16 games and appeared to have no setbacks with his knee.

The reviews of his actual play, though, were not as stellar.

Jaylon struggled early in the year, more than many had hoped.

Remember, this is a kid many felt would be a top-five talent in that 2016 draft class. He likely would've gone in those early picks, if not for the injury. Those players are expected to hit the ground running, and Smith had the benefit of an entire year of professional coaching even as he was sidelined and rehabbing.

That's only one side of the missed year, though. It would be unfair to expect Jaylon to have all the benefits of the coaching without time on the field to put it into practice. There's only so much that watching and listening can teach; applying what you've learned is a key step in the development process.

So yes, Jaylon was a still a rookie in many ways last year. What's more, he had the rust from an entire year spent off a football field.

5 Positives for Cowboys Heading Into the Off-Season

Dallas Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith

That excuse is valid for 2017, but should it still apply now?

Dallas will assuredly give Jaylon all of the practice reps he can take this offseason, and almost certainly with the first-team defense. Even if the team re-signs free agent Anthony Hitchens, the job is still Smith's to lose.

Ever since the days of Bill Parcells in Dallas, the idea of "Year Three" being critical in player development has stuck with us. Parcells once indicated that a player shows you his true self in this season, for good or bad.

It may not be fair to apply that same logic to Jaylon Smith in 2018. This is only his second year in a way, and at the least is not the typical third season that most players have when entering the NFL.

Still, those "elite" expectations hang over Jaylon now and forever.

He was taken 34th overall, at the top of the second round, because the Cowboys were willing to gamble on that knee for the potential payoff of a special talent.

With Sean Lee turning 32 in July, Jaylon Smith is expected to soon take over as the next captain of the Cowboys defense. It may not need to be this year, but Smith will still need to be more asset than liability this season to avoid becoming an easy target for criticism.

The uncertainty is why Dallas will likely try to bring back Hitchens, who at the least could be a valuable, versatile backup at all three positions. He could keep starting if Jaylon isn't ready, or take over mid-season if Smith gets hurt or struggles.

Dallas should give Jaylon Smith every opportunity to become a star this year.

He should get those offseason reps with the starters and, barring a major setback, start in week 1. The potential is still there, having been flashed several times last season, but given everything, the Cowboys should definitely hedge their bet with Anthony Hitchens or some other solid reserve option.


Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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4 Comments
  • Travis Diggs

    The #1 priority should be to resign Hitchens because he’s just as important to this defense as is Sean Lee because of his versatility and Sean Lee’s always on and off health issues. Jaylon was a liability in pass coverage which led to more time for Damien Wilson and Anthony Hitchens. The talent is definitely there, all the other intangibles will follow if he sees and understand tape of what he did well and didnt do well

  • Russ_Te

    I think a Cowboys trainer said Smith would be full tilt next year. I was surprised to see the speed at near 100% last year. His issues were mental IMO and I also think much of that will get knocked down for 2018. The intensity and motor are all there, he just needs reps and proper deployment.

    I still think because of what would be a fearsome combination of size and speed in the secondary, Smith should try some downs at SS in camp. Not saying it will definitely work, only that he could be a monster there if it did. Otherwise I’d try an LT role and look at that. Taylor was allowed to roam the box & choose his spot to attack the backfield from. Pretty hard on an OL when the LB has that kind of speed. You have to shift around the double-teams to wherever he goes.

  • John Williams

    I think they will draft someone in the mid rounds and maybe sign a low priced free agent as insurance, but I think they are going full speed ahead with Jaylon at Mike.

    That being said, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them trade up in the draft to get Roquon or Tremaine Edwards to pair with Jaylon given Lee’s age.

  • Nick Russo

    I believe Jaylon will take the next step after a full season and another offseason under his belt. With that being said, I strongly believe that we NEED to resign hitchens. Jaylon showed that he was more productive towards the end of the season when splitting reps. When you take into account Sean Lee’s age and injury history, it might make sense to look at running with a rotation of LBs. That’s where Hitchens becomes so valuable. He has been a consistent high level player on our defense since he was drafted. He’s been asked to play all three spots and he’s done so well. If you can keep jaylon and Sean Lee healthy and fresh and have the consistency of Hitchens, it gives our defense it’s best chance to perform at a high level.

Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys OL Fails To Crack NFL.com’s Top 10

Kevin Brady

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Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, offensive line

Often considered a top unit in football, the Dallas Cowboys offensive line seemed to take a step back in 2017. Mostly due to injuries and free agent departures on the left side, the Cowboys were unable to form the same solid unit we have seen in years past.

Despite their struggles, most would still consider them a top 5-10 offensive line in the NFL. At least, that's what I'd expect considering they still feature three All-Pro caliber players upfront.

Matt Harmon of NFL.com put together a list of the top 10 offensive lines in football based on performance in the 2017 season. The list was strictly developed through the use of next gen stats, which defined pressure as "pass-rushing play in which a defender gets within 2 yards of the opposing quarterback at the time of the throw or sack." In addition, "yards gained before close" was taken into account. This metric is meant to measure "the amount of rushing yards a running back gains before opposing defenders come within 1 yard of the player."

After compiling all of these stats, the Cowboys offensive line was left off of the list completely. Maybe even more surprising, however, was that the Philadelphia Eagles' line failed to crack the top ten as well. That's two lines with 3-4 Pro Bowl caliber players each missing the cut.

According to Matt Harmon the Cowboys allowed a pressure on 28.6% of Dak Prescott's dropbacks, 12th highest in the league. Dallas also ranked 20th in the league in YGBC in 2017.

While I do have some issues with the methodology of these statistics, the final result is actually hard to argue with. Down the stretch the Cowboys offense was downright pathetic at times. Regardless of how highly we thought of them prior to the year, the offense didn't perform to their standards, or the standards of a top ten unit.

Heading into 2018, however, I do expect this offensive line to begin to regain form. La'el Collins should continue to improve on the right side, and he is already an adequate starting right tackle regardless. I also expect Dallas to address their left guard spot, potentially within the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft.

In the end the success of this line may hinge on the health of Tyron Smith, though. When healthy, Smith is the best left tackle in all of football. But that "when healthy" caveat has certainly hurt the Cowboys offense.

The way the front office handles their offensive line this offseason will play a huge role in the success, or lack thereof, of the Cowboys in 2018.


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Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: CB Bene Benwikere

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: CB Bene Benwikere

After playing sparsely for the Dallas Cowboys in 2017, veteran cornerback Bene Benwikere is set to be an unrestricted free agent. Could he stay in Dallas, or will he have to find work elsewhere?

Dallas was concerned about its CB depth with heavy reliance on young players and Jourdan Lewis barely participating in the offseason. Therefore, the Cowboys traded a sixth-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for Benwikere just before Week One.

After a stellar rookie season with the Carolina Panthers in 2014, Bene had suffered a steep fall before landing in Cincy. Injuries and poor play got him cut midway through 2016 by the Panthers, and then Benwikere bounced from Miami to Green Bay before finally signing with the Bengals in the 2017 offseason.

Though a few years removed from being an All-Rookie Team standout, Bene Benwikere is still just 26 and may still draw interest from scouts who remember his better days. He is likely counting on that, because the Cowboys' secondary is starting to fill up.

Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: CB Bene Benwikere 1

Dallas Cowboys CB Bene Benwikere (#23)

The Cowboys currently have exciting sophomores Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis expected to start in 2018. Anthony Brown is back for his third season and will be active on game days.

Orlando Scandrick's future is cloudy, but Dallas won't get much cap relief from releasing him this season. They may elect to keep the veteran for one more year, which would all but fill out the CB depth chart.

Even if Scandrick leaves, talk that Dallas may move Byron Jones back to corner from safety would only leave Benwikere in the same disadvantaged position for finding work.

The best chance that Bene Benwikere has to stay with the Cowboys is if new Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard remembers him from 2014. Coaches often feel that can get more out of a player than the last guy, and Richard may see potential in Benwikere that his last few teams couldn't unlock.

Four years ago may be too long, though, and especially with a fresh new crop of young players coming into the league. Especially if they keep Scandrick, Dallas may want to use the rest of their roster spots on younger prospects.

As it stands, Bene Benwikere is unlikely to return to the Cowboys. However, given the flashes of potential he once showed in the NFL, you can't be certain that Dallas won't want to give him one more chance.


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Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: OL Joe Looney

Jess Haynie

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Joe Looney, 49ers
James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys backup offensive lineman Joe Looney was active for all 16 games of 2017 and never had to start. That is exactly what you want from a reserve player, and Looney has been relied on as security for the interior o-line for two years now. However, he enters 2018 as an unrestricted free agent.

A six-year veteran, Looney turns 28 years old in August. He has two years in the Cowboys system and is still in his physical prime. Able to play guard or center, "Jumbo Joe" is a nice value with versatility and familiarity.

Dallas got Looney on the cheap in 2016, signing him to a two-year deal at just $1.68 million. While he hasn't been seen much over the last two seasons, coming out of the Cowboys' offensive line could raise his profile in this free agent market compared to last time.

For example, the last guy to hold Joe's role in Dallas was Mackenzy Bernadeau. Dallas paid him $5.7 million from 2014-2015 to be the versatile backup at guard and center. Looney is at a comparable point now in his career.

Joe Looney

Dallas Cowboys G/C Joe Looney

Dallas may not want to give Joe Looney that kind of raise, but they may have to given other issues on the line. Starting guard Jonathan Cooper is also a free agent and was injured in Week 17. Chaz Green was tried at guard last year and failed.

Even if they didn't need Loooney to play guard, he is also the backup center and the currently the best candidate on the roster for that role.

While nobody wants Looney as the starting left guard in 2018, but Dallas may not want to give Cooper a new deal given his injury history. La'el Collins appears locked in at right tackle, so the Cowboys may feel the need to pay more to keep Looney in case the offseason doesn't provide a better option.

If the Cowboys are inspired to retain Joe Looney, it could mean raising his annual salary from about $800k to close to $3 million. Even with more cap flexibility than they've had in recent years, that's still a big jump that Dallas won't take lightly.

Clearly, Joe Looney's return in 2018 is not an easy decision. He could be a solid veteran depth option for some teams and might even find starting work if someone's desperate enough.

With Dallas facing some uncertainty on the offensive line, that gives Looney the leverage in any upcoming contract negotiations.


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