Simply getting back on the field and making his NFL debut should be considered a feat for Jaylon Smith.
But the Dallas Cowboys linebacker did more than that on Sunday night. Smith showed that he can become an impact player in the Cowboys’ 19-3 victory over the New York Giants.
Smith played 36 of 56 defensive snaps (64 percent), recording the second-most tackles (seven) and forcing a fumble on the night.
“It’s a long time coming,” Smith said. “I’m back. It’s a blessing to be back out there.”
The biggest question surrounding Smith had been at what level he would return at. Would he be the top talent he was before sustaining a severe knee injury at Notre Dame? Or would he be a shell of his old self?
The early signs point that Smith could be on his way back to being a top talent. It’s only one game, but he made plays and played more snaps than most expected.
Smith started at middle linebacker in place of the injured Anthony Hitchens and the thought had been that he’d share snaps with veteran Justin Durant. But Smith played 36 compared to Durant’s two.
“Of course, we had Durant sitting over there ready to go,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “Jaylon just kept gaining on it, kept going. When you look at several of the younger players that really distinguish themselves in this game, he’d be right at the top of the list. I’m really proud of him. He made some big plays for us out there, so I’m happy for him.”
Smith has had a long journey back to the field.
He tore the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his left knee during Notre Dame’s bowl game Jan. 1, 2016. Damage to the peroneal nerve was more problematic.
Several NFL teams took Smith off of their 2016 draft board entirely, but the Cowboys gambled on him with an early second-round pick as one of their physicians, Dan Cooper, performed the surgery. Smith started 39 games for Notre Dame and was considered a top-five draft talent until his injury.
The Cowboys have raved about Smith in his approach coming back from the devastating injury, and Smith himself has gained a following for his “clear-eyed view” approach.