Dallas Cowboys: Projecting Jaylon Smith’s production in 2017

Aug 1, 2016; Irvine, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) at training camp at the River Ridge Fields. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 1, 2016; Irvine, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) at training camp at the River Ridge Fields. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Dallas Cowboys fans have repeatedly heard how special Jaylon Smith can be, but what could that mean statistically for the team?

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith is the highlight of the team’s offseason.

No, it’s not the 2016 Rookie of the Year and new franchise quarterback Dak Prescott. It’s not the 2016 NFL rushing champion and MVP candidate Ezekiel Elliott. It’s not even the Cowboys’ recent draft picks that are poised to revamp the defense.

No, it’s Smith that has captured the most of our attention. And honestly it’s not a major surprise.

Let’s roll through his backstory again. Smith was once a projected top five draft pick due to a fantastic college career which included winning the Dick Butkus Award, presented to the best college linebacker, during his junior year. The media and NFL personnel gushed over his potential, as described in this article by Bleacher Report writer Adam Wells.

"“In November, NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah asked five NFL personnel executives to name the safest prospect they have studied this season, and Smith was the only player named twice. “"

ACL and LCL tears in his knee that occurred in his final college game caused him to drop to the Dallas Cowboys in the second round of the draft. The team’s management has been patient with his recovery process, but even they can’t seem to withhold their excitement over what they think he brings to the team. Cowboys’ Executive Vice President Stephen Jones has no problem expressing it in interviews:

"“He’s doing great,” Jones said. “He’s making great improvements. We’re certainly more fired up than ever that we picked him last year.”"

So how should all this hype translate on the field during the regular season? Let’s take a look at some statistics.

In order to project Smith’s production, we are going to assume Smith is going to see little to no setbacks due to his foot brace. It’s reasonable if that makes you feel hesitant, but it’s the offseason. This is the best time to let optimism, even if considered unreasonable, wash away all doubts (which makes it the best time for Cleveland Browns fans).

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We are next going to assume Smith is off to an All-Pro career. Plenty of analysts thought he had that potential before his injury, so it’s not unreasonable to consider. To reiterate that once more, NFL media analyst Bucky Brooks once compared him to former All-Pro San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis.

One final thing we’ll do is assume Smith plays this season as if he was a rookie. He’ll be more advanced than a rookie due to his year of studying the scheme off the field, but it’s still going to take him time to acclimate to the pros on the field.

Since 2001, 15 linebackers (excluding edge rushers) have been voted first team All-Pro. Averaging out their rookie seasons translates to the following numbers: 87 solo tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble, one interception and three passes defended. They started an average of 13 games their rookie year.

To put that in perspective, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee had 93 solo tackles and one pass defended in 2016. The player Smith would be replacing as a starter, linebacker Anthony Hitchens, had 39 solo tackles, 1.5 sacks and one pass defended. In other words, Smith’s projected numbers would be a major improvement to the middle linebacker position.

One expectation fans should not set is Smith immediately being named an All-Pro in 2017. Of those 15 linebackers, only one of them became a first team All-Pro in his rookie year (coincidentally, Patrick Willis). Fun fact: on average it took them till their fourth season to be named first team All-Pro.

This also applies to second team All-Pros. Of the 34 named to the second team since 2001, only two of them achieved it in their rookie season.

Next: Three exciting facts about the Dallas Cowboys offense

That brings us to this summary: Smith can bring an immediate positive impact to the Dallas Cowboys’ defense as soon as next season. That doesn’t mean he should be expected to immediately compare to the best in the game. Like most new NFL players, it will likely take Smith time to reach his potential. Still, he can be an amazing weapon in the meantime. Enjoy the offseason hype.