The Dallas Cowboys starting duo at linebacker will be envied by many defenses around the NFL. Last season, rookie Leighton Vander Esch and a finally healthy version of Jaylon Smith dominated from sideline to sideline throughout the season. For the most part, they did so without veteran defensive star Sean Lee in the lineup, who suffered an injury midseason and had his job taken away by the rookie sensation. Vander Esch’s season went surprisingly well as he exceeded the expectations of many who weren’t excited about him being taken in the first round by the Cowboys.
Although the rookie went to the Pro Bowl, he was originally snubbed from the team. He then made the trip as a replacement for Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly. In fact, Vander Esch wasn’t even in the ballot when the voting started. Although Vander Esch ended up playing for the NFC team in his first season in the NFL, Jaylon Smith hasn’t have the chance to be a Pro-Bowler.
In a recent NFL.com article, Marc Sessler predicted a first-time Pro-Bowler for each of the NFL teams and Smith was the guy for the Dallas Cowboys. To be honest, I wouldn’t have picked anyone else. What Jaylon did in 2018 was absolutely remarkable and should only be better in the upcoming season.
His career in the NFL didn’t begin quite as planned since the moment in which he seriously injured his knee during his final bowl game in Notre Dame. After tumbling all the way into the second round in the 2016 NFL Draft, he had to sit out hist first season in the pros and finally got playing time in 2017. Even then, he clearly was far from being 100% healthy. It wasn’t until last year that we saw the Jaylon Smith we witnessed playing for the Fighting Irish on Saturdays.
In 2018, Smith racked up 121 tackles (82 solo), six tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles. Talk about a breakout season! He went from playing in 55% of the defensive snaps in 2017 to lining up in 95% of them last year. He also had a lot of success when rushing the passer, something the Cowboys did more with their linebackers thanks to Kris Richard’s influence on the defensive gameplan.
“Smith recorded the top pass-rush win percentage (27.8) and second-best pass-rush grade (84.8) at his position, per Pro Football Focus.” – Marc Sessler on Jaylon Smith.
Smith’s speed, change of direction and explosiveness were on point all season at middle linebacker. He’s undoubtedly a Pro-Bowl caliber player. Now granted, the NFC has plenty of big names at the position, so it isn’t an easy feat to make the team. Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly are likely to lead the voting just like last year, but Smith will be in the conversation.
At the end of the day though, the Pro Bowl doesn’t really mean that much. As long as the Cowboys linebacker keeps his level of play to such a high-level, the team will be concerned about playing in the Super Bowl, not one week before.
It’s easy to get excited about a linebacker duo that after such an impressive season will return even more experienced and developed. The Dallas Cowboys have a very talented defense all around, but that couple of linebackers might be the most exciting part about it.