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How much can Cowboys count on return of Jaylon Smith?

Dallas Cowboys line backer Jaylon Smith (54) takes part in a drill during the NFL football team's minicamp at Valley Ranch in Irving, Texas, Wednesday, June 15, 2016. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
AP Photo/LM Otero

The Dallas Cowboys made a huge roll of the dice when they selected linebacker Jaylon Smith with the 34th overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. After a stellar career at Notre Dame, Smith tore his ACL and LCL while also suffering nerve damage in his final season during a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.

The Cowboys selected him knowing the risk: His nerve might never fully regenerate, avoiding any chance for a full recovery. On the flip side, he had top-15 talent in that draft class and would be a franchise piece for their front seven if he could return to form.

After participating in a few OTAs this spring, the arrow points up for Smith. He claims his knee is back to “pre-injury” form and he expects to return to the field in 2017.

After such a traumatic injury, what should be expected from the 22-year-old linebacker this year?

Sean Lee has started 29 of 32 regular-season games over the past two seasons for Dallas, a very promising percentage after the previous two seasons in which he played only 17 games combined. Even with injury luck being back in his favor recently, Rod Marinelli’s defense could use more speed up front as Lee turns 30 years old later in July.

The Cowboys could limit Smith’s role early on from a snap standpoint, but that doesn’t mean they have to cut back on capitalizing off his versatility. The term “two down” player is thrown around often, but Smith shouldn’t be pigeonholed as just a run stopper. While his speed and pursuit enable him to blow up plays in the backfield (he had 23.5 tackles for a loss in his three-year college career), that’s not where his playmaking ability ends.

It’s fair to say Dallas has had a bit of an edge rushing problem in recent years. The Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence picks haven’t panned out for many reasons. The Cowboys used their first-round pick this year on another edge in Taco Charlton, but it’s not realistic to expect him to create constant pressure, especially as a rookie.

It’s still not known if Smith has regained his incredible explosiveness, but he can help get after the quarterback as either a blitzer or a true stand-up rusher in certain situations. He has the first step and speed to beat tackles around the corner, which could force the quarterback up into the teeth of the interior rush.

The scary-good part of the young linebacker’s game is the many threats he poses for the opposition. He can stop the run, he can be an effective blitzer and he also can drop back into coverage. Having a linebacker that can run down the field with running backs and tight ends is crucial for a division that is expected to air out the football. Why cement him into one specific role when the player has the potential to keep offenses guessing?

It’s unfair to expect Smith to exceed 60 percent of the defensive snaps this year. He did limited work in the spring and the coaching staff won’t have him practice on back-to-back days this summer. On top of that, he’ll need to adjust to the speed of the NFL after being off from the field for some time (he’ll be over 20 months removed from surgery when the season starts).

The Cowboys rolled the dice in the second round over a year ago. What they have now is a chess piece for a defense that needs more playmakers to thrive and create turnovers. While the staff will take things slow while maintaining a realistic perspective, Smith’s many roles should be unleashed during the 2017 season.

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