3 Dallas Cowboys who need to have a great training camp

Dallas Cowboys, Jaylon Smith (9) (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)
Dallas Cowboys, Jaylon Smith (9) (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports) /
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Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys
Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys, (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Jaylon Smith, LB

Jaylon Smith has been a great story for the Dallas Cowboys. The adversity the young linebacker overcame when battling back from his devastating college knee injury was nothing short of inspiring.

After sitting out the 2016 season to rehab his injured knee, Smith has come back and played in every game since 2017. Initially, he was far from the player that made him the consensus top defender in the nation back in college. He was serviceable though and the mere fact that he played professional football again was incredible to see.

Then in 2018, playing alongside then-rookie Leighton Vander Esch, Smith found his explosiveness again. He was snubbed from the Pro Bowl, but he had a great season and his future never looked brighter. He even ranked number 61 on the NFL’s Top 100 Players list prior to the 2019 season.

Flash forward to 2021 and Smith is in a very different position than he was following his breakout in 2018. He’s gone from a young star on the rise to a trendy cut candidate. His play has declined sharply in two consecutive seasons as he’s become a frequent target in the passing game and has failed to consistently make an impact in any other phase of the game. Last season his PFF grade cratered to a career-worst 54.2, “good” enough for 44th out of all eligible linebackers.

The Dallas Cowboys sent Jaylon Smith a clear message this offseason

During this offseason, Dallas sent as clear a statement as they possibly could to Smith when they drafted linebackers, Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox. Parsons was the Cowboys’ top pick and you have to figure he will find ways to get on the field no matter what. One of Parsons’ most valuable skills though is his ability to rush the passer and bring pressure, an area that Smith also excels in.

Meanwhile. Cox has a high motor and is very good in pass coverage. The team also signed Keanu Neal from the Atlanta Falcons in free agency and he’s going to make the transition to full-time linebacker for a Cowboys defense that will be under the direction of his former head coach Dan Quinn.

After the Cowboys declined his fifth-year option, Vander Esch is also scheduled to hit free agency following the season. Given his contract situation, Smith’s regression, and all of the aforementioned recent additions, it’s tough for me to see a world where both Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith end up returning to Dallas next season.

Smith needs to have a great camp, but it’s not because I think he’s in jeopardy of being cut. Rather, I think he’s playing for his future. The Cowboys will likely end up choosing between keeping Jaylon Smith and letting Leighton Vander Esch walk, or releasing Smith and attempting to re-sign Vander Esch.

Still, even in the present Smith is facing some new competition for his snaps. The Cowboys aren’t going to play five linebackers at once, and if he doesn’t regain his 2018 form he might find himself the odd man out.

Maybe Dan Quinn is finally able to utilize Smith to the best of his ability. Maybe the extra competition that the Cowboys have brought in help give him the push he needs. Or, maybe it doesn’t and he continues to regress. Either way, Smith needs to get off on the right foot with a good training camp.