Losing Anthony Hitchens for the first eight weeks of the season might loom large for the Dallas Cowboys, but can Jaylon Smith handle an increased workload?
There’s plenty to be excited about when it comes to Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith. His potential as a three-down linebacker is off the charts, and his recovery from a gruesome knee injury is going smoother than most people expected.
With starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens sustaining a tibial plateau fracture in the Cowboys’ dress rehearsal game against the Oakland Raiders, it looks like Smith’s recovery timeline will have to be sped up. While it’s exciting to see Smith in a sizeable role this early on in his recovery, there should be concerns about whether or not the Cowboys are sacrificing some of Smith’s long-term health for short-term benefits.
The Cowboys contingency plan for Hitchens includes a rotation of veteran linebacker Justin Durant and Smith. Presumably, Durant will be playing on run downs, with Smith coming in on passing downs.
Although that sounds like a traditionally sound way to integrate a linebacker into a larger role, it might not necessarily be the case with the Cowboys. Dallas
For Dallas, their base defense is essentially the nickel package. Last year, the club lined up with five or more defensive backs 79.6% of the time. On Tuesday’s practice, Jaylon Smith was one of the nickel linebackers on both the first and second team.
Justin Durant will presumably see his fair share of snaps, but it’s clear the Cowboys don’t envision the aging linebacker with much of a role in their nickel and dime defenses. Smith also received the majority of first-team reps in their true base defense snaps, so it appears that he will be getting the Lion’s share of snaps in Hitchen’s place.
Owner Jerry Jones hinted at that possibility, saying he envisions an “accelerated” process when it comes to Smith’s rehabilitation. He did, however, come short of calling Smith a starter.
"“I think the start word is one I’d be careful with,” Jones told 105.3 The Fan on Tuesday via Pro Football Talk. “It could be, but it definitely will cause him to have an accelerated approach to how this year starts for him. So, yes I think it’s going to be more activity, more snaps for him right off the bat.”"
Regardless of what Jones says, it appears Smith is on track to be the Cowboys’ primary middle linebacker. While that is exciting at first glance, it’s fair to question whether or not the Cowboys are rushing things just a little bit.
Jaylon Smith might’ve very well ended up being a regular contributor by midseason, regardless of Hitchens’ injury status, but to have him in that role this early of the year could be costly for both the Cowboys and Smith in the long run. Let’s just hope Dallas’ accelerated process doesn’t impact Smith’s future as a potential All-Pro player.