The Dallas Cowboys were optimistic that Jaylon Smith would be their starting middle linebacker of the future, so much so that they pulled the trigger in the 2016 NFL Draft on a player they knew wouldn’t play at all that very season. Injuries and lack of depth at the position forced Smith into a significant role for the 2017 season when he was expected to be slowly brought in following the disastrous knee injury that ended his college career.
When Anthony Hitchens went down with an injury in the preseason, the Cowboys had to rely on Smith who wasn’t yet where he needed to be, along with veteran Justin Durant. Nevertheless, Smith played a larger portion of the snaps going down the stretch and he seemed to get better each passing week. The improved play was something to build upon for the upcoming season.
According to Clarence Hill Jr. of the Ft Worth Star-Telegram, the Cowboys are now looking to move Smith over to the Strong Side (SAM) linebacker position. This team often moves players around from their natural positions to other spots to fill needs rather than bringing in depth. Byron Jones moving from cornerback to safety and Tyrone Crawford switching from defensive end to tackle and then back to end are just a couple of examples of this.
“The SAM in our defense is an important spot but there is so much nickel defense being played in the NFL. Often times you only have two linebackers out on the field, so you want to give him more than just that role. He might be a SAM in base but you want to make sure he has a role when we’re playing our two linebacker defense as well.” – head coach Jason Garrett
With Sean Lee on the weak side to help keep him healthy, it begs the question of who will be the Dallas Cowboys’ starting middle linebacker? The Cowboys could re-sign Hitchens to fill that role but he will likely command top dollar on the free agency market. In addition, as Garrett said, in passing packages Smith is likely one of the two linebackers on the field with Lee. So middle linebacker would be a part-time gig for a Cowboys team that doesn't spend a lot on free agency regardless.
The smart answer would in the NFL Draft. The top name being Roquan Smith of Georgia, although he could be long gone by the time they come to select. One interesting name to fill the anticipated void left by Hitchens is Josey Jewell, who, like Hitchens, played for the Iowa Hawkeyes in college.
The exciting thing about Jewell is that he is receiving comparisons to Lee and would fit nicely at middle linebacker. He's not the fastest guy but his football IQ and awareness more than makes up for it.
The Cowboys could also try this little experiment out and find that Jaylon is their best option at middle linebacker and move him back. Overall this team needs to cease risking the growth and development of players by moving them around due to the fact they believe in “position flex”.
Do you think the Cowboys should move Jaylon Smith to the strong side or would you rather see them retain Anthony Hitchens? Share your thoughts with Patrick on Twitter @DraftCowboys.