Jaylon Smith once served as a cautionary tale. Now, he's the NFL's version of a phoenix rising from the ashes ready to reclaim his elite status. The linebacker is well on his way to becoming the Dallas Cowboys' defensive leader and a leaguewide superstar.
Three years ago, the Cowboys took a chance on Smith after he tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. Smith still declared early for the draft even though he had to rebuild his body and deal with nerve damage.
All the while, Smith never doubted himself.
"Basically, I want everyone to know I'm OK," Smith told Bleacher Report three months after the injury. "This injury is a minor setback that comes before a major comeback. I will be 100 percent again. It's a marathon, not a sprint.
"I'm the best player in the draft."
Smith undoubtedly displayed top-five draft potential before the injury, and the Cowboys selected him 34th overall. Smith redshirted during his first professional season. The linebacker started six games in 2017 before becoming a full-time starter in 2018.
Fast forward to today. With a full year as the Cowboys' starting middle linebacker under his belt, Smith is prepared to show the world the type of player he seems destined to become.
"I think up until that play, a day didn't pass when I wasn't asked about my knee," Smith said, per the South Bend Tribune's Eric Hansen. "After that, it dimmed down. People got to see I could run.
"It's been a long journey, but I'm back—and better."
To better understand Smith's skill set, a predraft quote helps frame what NFL evaluators thought at the time.
"He reminds me so much of DJ [Derrick Johnson] when he came out. Same frame, same speed and same playmaking ability," a former defensive coach told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. "Both of those guys are made for the pro game."
There are few well-rounded linebackers in today's game. Such an emphasis is placed on those who work in space and can run that playing downhill, taking on blocks and consistently making plays against opposing ground games is somewhat of a lost art. And those who have the throwback skill set as slobber-knockers ready to pounce on the running game tend to struggle in coverage.
Johnson was a complete defender with the length, size and athleticism to excel in both areas.
Last season, Smith blossomed. The third-year defender's 121 total tackles tied for 13th overall. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith's 27.8 win percentage as a pass-rusher ranked first and his four sacks tied for 10th-most by an off-the-ball linebacker. PFF also noted Smith is one of three off-the-ball linebackers with 95 targets in coverage over the past two seasons to have allowed one touchdown or fewer.
The Cowboys linebacker is already productive. He showed tremendous physical and mental growth in his first three seasons. As he matures, added game experience will make his reads quicker and increase his understanding of opposing offenses.
Smith is developing into the heart of the Cowboys defense, with Leighton Vander Esch flying to the football as the weakside linebacker and veteran Sean Lee moving to the strong side. Quietly, the 245-pound MIKE played 95.3 percent of Dallas' 2018 defensive snaps—which is amazing considering the extent of his 2016 injury.
Dallas added one of the most physically gifted defensive tackles in this year's class, Trysten Hill, to play in front of Smith and make the linebacker's life easier, which should help Smith be more productive in 2019.
The Cowboys organization knows exactly what it has in the 23-year-old defender.
According to 247Sports' Mike Fisher, Dallas' front office started preliminary contract negotiations with the linebacker, though the discussions haven't reached the substantive stage. It's a significant step, even if the two sides aren't close. That's because the Cowboys' salary-cap space is limited, with multiple young players in line for massive extensions.
The team already completed an extension with defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. Quarterback Dak Prescott is next on the docket. The Cowboys actively engaged wide receiver Amari Cooper and his representation in negotiations. Right now, running back Ezekiel Elliott and cornerback Byron Jones seem to be on the backburner.
"We're a good young football team, and they've got to have some confidence in Jerry [Jones] and myself and Will [McClay] and Jason [Garrett] that we're going to manage it in a good way that's in the best interest for the whole organization and our whole team to have the best chance of winning Super Bowls," director of player personnel Stephen Jones said, per Pro Football Talk's Charean Williams.
The Cowboys approaching Smith now is a classic example of a sports franchise trying to lock up a young up-and-comer long before it loses control of his rights to gain a favorable deal. Small-market baseball organizations are masters of this approach.
Smith's rookie contract still has a year left at $2.1 million before he can enter the restricted-free-agency market in 2020. Dialogue between the two sides provides a glimpse of where the team believes Smith can go as a player. Dallas' attempt to sign him now is a preemptive move in case the organization can't do so later due to his expected growth—which would make him more expensive—and other extensions.
Smith will almost certainly benefit from a being more comfortable this season. He's no longer rehabbing his knee. He's not a first-year starter trying to keep his head from spinning. He's the Cowboys' starting middle linebacker, and no one questions his status.
The amount of work Smith required to reach this point is a great story. But the linebacker's recovery from a devastating knee injury no longer defines him. Smith expects to be the best, and he has a legitimate chance to earn the designation since nothing is holding him back.