I’ve never bought into the idea that Dallas’ second-round rookie, linebacker Jaylon Smith, would play in 2016. His knee injury seemed far too serious to be worth the risk of trying to rush him onto the field. Still, there was a lingering hope that he might have a quick recovery and be able to contribute soon.
ESPN’s Ed Werder all but smashed that hope with his report yesterday:
I’m told #Cowboys No. 2 pick @thejaylonsmith has experienced no significant improvement in injured nerve so far. Playing 2016 seems unlikely
No big deal, in my opinion. It just confirms what the majority of us already believed about Smith and maintains the status quo.
If anything, it only draws our attention even more to two of the Cowboys’ other linebackers.
Dallas re-signed Rolando McClain in early March to a one-year, $4 million contract with some heavy incentive bonuses. It’s a mercenary deal that hopefully keeps McClain, who has well-documented motivation issues, productive and available. Along with the 2016 bonuses, Rolando McClain will be thinking about his free agency next year.
McClain will turn 28 during the summer of 2017, making this a critical season for him. That’s still young enough for teams to give you a long-term deal, but also at the end of the spectrum. If Rolando McClain doesn’t have a standout season for Dallas, it could knock him off the radar for most other teams.
Jaylon Smith’s knee only further incentivizes Rolando McClain to perform. If it goes poorly, McClain could find that new contract right here in Dallas. If nothing else, he may be able to get another one-year deal as an insurance policy against Smith’s health.
After a strong 2014 rookie season, Anthony Hitchens looked like a future stud at middle linebacker. However, he was not as good in his opportunities last year. The fact that Dallas even drafted Jaylon Smith in the second round, knowing the risks, says something about where they are on Hitchens’ long-term prospects.
Plenty of guys have “sophomore slumps” and come back to have great careers. Anthony Hitchens could easily be one of those and will now have less worry of Smith taking knocking him down the depth chart. If Rolando McClain has an injury or some other cause for absence, as he usually does, then Hitchens will likely still be the first man up to replace him.
In fact, given Smith’s health and McClain’s personal issues, it’s not unreasonable that Hitchens could walk into the 2017 season as the starting middle linebacker. He should not be discouraged by the drafting of Jaylon Smith, but start pushing even harder. Opportunity still abounds.
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Football is a tricky business when it comes to the health and success of teammates at your position. Publicly, nobody roots for the guy in front of them to have problems. But still, “deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties,” these guys can’t help but get excited when their own security or opportunity increases because of a teammate’s misfortune.
Make no mistake, Jaylon Smith could be the most talented linebacker on this team right now, and especially among the middle linebackers. The consensus is that he would’ve been a Top-5 talent in this last draft if not for the knee injury.
Guys like Rolando McClain and Anthony Hitchens can’t worry about that, though.
They need to just give their all in the present and wait to see what that means for the future. Even if it doesn’t come from the Cowboys, the rewards are out there for quality linebackers. It’s a position where few teams are ever satisfied.
Nobody knows that better than the Dallas Cowboys.