Heading into the 2018 season, the Cowboys still don't know if Smith will ever realize the star potential he showed at Notre Dame before suffering a catastrophic knee injury in his final game with the Irish.
That he was able to get on the field and play in 2017 after missing all of 2016 was a triumph in itself considering that many thought Smith might not ever play again.
Never miss a local story.
The Cowboys remain hopeful about his continued progress but will be looking at him more as a strongside linebacker than a middle linebacker in 2018.
“We’re really excited about him as a player," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "Again, his development has been significant. I think physically he will get better and better as we go. And certainly, he will learn from his experiences. He does have versatility. He can play any of the spots. You want to make sure you give him a chance to succeed.
"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.”
Smith recorded 81 total tackles, two pass deflections, two forced fumbles and an interception last season where he played mostly middle linebacker.
He was forced on the field early because of injuries to Anthony Hitchens and Sean Lee. At times, he was overexposed. The Cowboys found that Smith played his best when his snaps were limited, according to Garrett.
"He probably played more than we wanted him to play at the outset of the season," Garrett said. "When Hitch was hurt and then Sean was hurt, he had to play a lot of snaps. He played his best football when his snaps were more limited and situations he was most comfortable, playing next to those guys. You got to remember that he's a rookie and he’s coming off an injury. There are a lot of factors that went into his performance this year. But there’s no doubts in our minds that he got better as it went on and he played best when we had him in that environment where he was most comfortable.”
If Smith is going to move to strongside linebacker, the question is who will play the middle in 2018, especially if the Cowboys lose Hitchens in free agency as expected.
Linebacker suddenly becomes a bigger area of need in the draft and free agency.
Smith is the second Cowboys defender seemingly on the move. Dallas plans to give safety Byron Jones a try at cornerback.