A day after a former Chargers team doctor published a piece that expressed doubt that Smith would ever reach the lofty bar set for him, Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones doubled down on the team’s stance on the linebacker, saying the team views Smith as a “franchise player that will be around for many, many years,” per the Dallas Morning News.
Smith backed that proclamation by telling reporters he’ll be ready for the Cowboys’ season-opener against the New York Giants.
Jones has spent many of his offseason media appearances stumping for the linebacker, who the Cowboys selected in the second round despite being aware of a serious knee injury that included nerve damage. Smith was initially expected to be available to play sometime in 2016, but never took the field. The message has since shifted to extremely positive, starting with owner Jerry Jones’ comments that he’d be “very shocked and surprised” if Smith was “not a key part of our defense in 2017.” It continued with Stephen Jones saying in mid-April that Smith was “making great improvements,” and NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reporting on April 24 that the nerve in Smith’s knee has started to regenerate, meaning he’s starting to gain muscle control.
On that nerve topic, Smith told reporters Wednesday that doctors have told him his nerve has “maximum potential” to make progress. When pressed on if that meant a full recovery, he again replied with “maximum potential.”
So where does this leave Smith, who was expected to be a franchise-changing linebacker before suffering the knee injury in a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State? Smith is still wearing a brace to address his drop foot (as a result of the nerve damage), though he said it remains to be seen whether he will have to play in it, per the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To that point, Smith said that he’s able to do everything in practice and is “looking tremendous” while wearing the brace, which bodes well for him, even though most everyone looks great in shorts and helmets before putting the pads on.
These injuries tend to be more unpredictable than most, so it’s tough for us to project how Smith will impact Dallas’ defense. There’s been a defensive backfield exodus in the last two months, but most of the Cowboys‘ linebacking corps is intact. Smith, at the level he was expected to play before the injury, would make a major impact. Anything in that ballpark would still be more than welcome.