It took nearly 600 days for Jaylon Smith to take another snap of football after his brutal knee injury, but his NFL debut was nothing short of impressive.
This past Saturday put a lot of anticipation of linebacker Jaylon Smith to rest. Since he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round of the 2016 draft, he’s been surrounded by questions of whether he’ll ever return to his college form after his devastating knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl. No one really questioned whether the torn ligaments in his knee healed correctly, but rather if the additional nerve damage would ever fully regenerate.
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Due to that nerve damage, he’s still recovering from a condition called drop foot where an individual cannot completely raise their foot back up when it’s pointed in the downward position. That would be difficult for any human being much less a professional football player. The risk of playing with drop foot is a scary one because it greatly increases the likelihood of other injuries like rolled ankles.
There had been a ton of conflicting rumors and reports of the nerve regenerating, but nobody, including myself, really knew what to believe. So all through last season and this year’s offseason us fans were left wondering what was actually going on with Smith’s nerve.
I’d seen plenty of videos of Jaylon’s workouts and training camp practices where he showed explosiveness and speed, but simultaneously I heard he still had a noticeable limp at times from scouts and others around camp.
Saturday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts erased a lot of doubt I had about Jaylon. He didn’t fill up the stat sheet by any means, but the one tackle he registered made me jump out of my seat. It was a simple crossing route on a third and long, but the receiver was stopped well short of the first down because Jaylon dropped quickly into his zone, read the route, and closed in like a flash to make the tackle.
After watching all his snaps, he showed glimpses of everything he was while being a Consensus All-American at Notre Dame. His quickness, instincts, and ability to be around the ball was all there. And it was all those things that helped him record his first NFL tackle.
It wasn’t what most would call a highlight hit, but that tackle is going to be talked about all week. The crack from Smith’s pads as he made the hit electrified the crowd, and his signature swipe celebration after the tackle got the defense riled up.
I’ve never been so relieved and pumped up all at the same time during a preseason game. Relieved because he made a nice clean tackle with force and no injuries, and obviously pumped up because this is Jaylon Smith we’re talking about here.
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On the flip side, he probably could have had four or five tackles, but he missed some gaps and over pursued on some angles. But, I’m not going to knock the guy too much for not playing a game of football in over a year and a half.
Those two things he struggled with can be fixed in the film room and in practice, so I’m not worried about those one bit. What I was most worried about was his ability to fight off contact and change direction without thinking, and I feel he performed in those aspects admirably.
I don’t think anyone was really evaluating him on his ability to blow up the opposing offense. I think we were all just dying to see for ourselves if his knee was really okay, and I believe he moved fluidly enough to where he’ll contribute to the Cowboys defense this year.
The more he plays, the better he will get. And I for one am beginning to feel more and more confident in believing Jaylon Smith still has greatness in him.