The Dallas Cowboys figure to be a fairly unbalanced team this season. Their offense, with or without Ezekiel Elliott, should be quite strong. They have one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, a rising star quarterback in Dak Prescott, and quality passing-game weapons in Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and Jason Witten.
But their defense, which last season ranked fifth in points allowed but only 18th in defensive efficiency (as measure by Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA, which adjusts performance for down, distance, and opponent), lost several contributors from a year ago and could take a step backward while incorporating a lot of new faces. One thing that would help stave off that backward step, though, would be the emergence of young contributors.
Maybe the highest-ceiling potential contributor on that defense is Jaylon Smith, who was set to be a top-five pick in 2016 before he tore the ACL and LCL in his knee during Notre Dame’s bowl game. Subsequent nerve damage in his leg knocked him out of the first round altogether. The Cowboys snapped him up at the start of the second round knowing that he wouldn’t play at all in 2016, if ever, betting that his nerve would regenerate and he’d eventually approximate the player he was prior to the injury.
Smith sat out all of last season while experiencing almost no nerve regeneration in his leg, but has rapidly improved throughout this offseason. Nearing 80 percent regeneration, he suited up for a game for the first time in over a year and a half last week.
Now, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says he expects Smith to be on the field and making plays when the Cowboys take on the Giants in their season-opener.
Jerry Jones on @1053thefan: I expect Jaylon Smith to be on the active roster Week 1. “I think he’ll be making tackles against the Giants.”
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 25, 2017
That would be quite an accomplishment for Smith considering many people thought he would never make it back onto an NFL field. He probably won’t be a starter or a major contributor early on in the season, but his athleticism should lend itself well to making plays in sub packages.
The Cowboys will surely want to work him in slowly so as to not push him too hard, but his potentially availability for Week 1, regardless of how much he plays, is an encouraging sign for the team. If he can manage to work his way up to being a full-time contributor, it’s possible the risk they took could pay off, and make what was already one of the better draft classes in recent memory even better.
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