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.
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.