The Dallas Cowboys preseason is underway, and we got our first look at the players under real, game-like circumstances. Questions abound after a down year, however, there were plenty of things to be excited about for the upcoming season. Numerous Cowboys played well, but maybe none more than linebacker Jaylon Smith
After being hyped up as an All-world linebacker at Notre Dame, Smith seemed destined for NFL greatness. He was considered by some the best linebacker prospect in years. After being the Butkus Award winner in 2015, given to the best linebacker in college, Smith was sure to be a top-10 maybe even top-5 pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
During his last college game, Smith suffered a career-threatening knee injury. He tore his ACL, and his MCL, but even worse was the nerve damage. There were questions if he would ever play football again, but the Cowboys still drafted him in the 2nd round, 34th overall.
While he sat out his rookie year rehabilitating the knee, he finally got back on the field and even started six games. He put up 81 tackles, a sack, and 2 forced fumbles but more importantly played all 16 games. While he was a valuable member of the defense, he still did not show his pre-college-injury form.
On Thursday night the Cowboys played the 49ers and we saw a different Jaylon Smith. The pre-college-injury version Jaylon Smith. After ditching his knee brace he wore last season, he was quicker, faster, and looked like a difference maker. The athleticism and explosion he was missing last year are back and it showed.
On the 49ers second offensive play, Jerick McKinnon, a quick and shifty running back, took the handoff and tried to cut around Smith. Moving to his left the Cowboys linebacker wrapped him up and took him down. If lateral agility and side to side/ stop and start movements were what plagued Smith the year before, you couldn’t tell on that play where he corralled the 30 million dollar running back.
Smith looked really good in coverage as well. 49ers tight end George Kittle, who runs a 4,52 forty-yard dash, ran a deep seam and Smith stayed with him step for step 30 yards down the field for an incompletion. Jaylon covered up running backs and tight ends numerous times when 49er quarterbacks were looking their way. His back peddle and change of direction look night and day different from last season.
The Cowboys also used Smith to blitz the quarterback. The Cowboys are not known for blitzing their linebackers, however, Smith rushed the quarterback 3 times in limited snaps. While he didn’t get a sack, he did make his presence felt. On one play he ran over the center pre-snap forcing the 49ers into a false start. On another play, he broke through the line and was right in backup quarterback C.J.Beathard face and forced a bad throw. There was talk of using Jaylon to blitz and he looks very comfortable rushing the passer.
More importantly than the plays he made was the way he was flying around. He just passes the eyeball test. His speed and burst look like it did in college.
Jaylon Smith was drafted high because the Cowboys knew, when healthy, he would be a possible Pro-Bowl linebacker. Playing next to Sean Lee and first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch could be the best set of linebackers the team has had in years. Jaylon Smith is all the way back, and he could help the defense carry the team to the playoffs in 2018.