Smith hopes to play without a knee brace during the 2018 season, Kate Hairopoulos of The Dallas Morning News reports.
Smith recently parted ways with an Ankle Foot Orthosis foot brace that had been used as part of his broader recovery process from the career-threatening knee injury he suffered in his final collegiate game with Notre Dame in January 2016. After sitting out his rookie season with the Cowboys, Smith returned to play all 16 games in 2017 while sporting the brace, accruing 81 tackles, two forced fumbles and a sack. Even if he's still stuck with the brace when Week 1 of the upcoming season kicks off, the mere notion that Smith might be able to play without any extra stabilization offers encouragement that the leg won't be a recurring issue for the youngster throughout his career.
Smith is no longer wearing an AFO brace on his drop foot, Clarence Hill Jr. of The Forth Worth Star-Telegram reports.
Smith had been wearing the brace to stabilize his foot as he worked his way back through recovery from his knee injury and nerve damage. He hasn't been wearing the brace at all during the offseason, a sign of his continually improving health since his knee injury in January of 2016.
Smith may shift to strong-side linebacker in the Cowboys' base defense after the team used a first-round pick on Boise State product Leighton Vander Esch, Kristi Scales of The Dallas Morning News reports.
The draft pick hints at a lack of confidence regarding Smith's ability to handle a full-time role, though Sean Lee's lengthy injury history may have been just as large of a factor. The Cowboys likely envision Vander Esch as a direct replacement for Anthony Hitchens, who signed with the Chiefs in March after operating as a three-down middle linebacker for the Cowboys throughout much of 2017. Despite notching 81 tackles and two forced fumbles on only 575 defensive snaps last season, Smith may find himself watching from the sideline while Lee and Vander Esch take the field in the Cowboys' nickel defense. Of course, it won't come as any surprise if Smith puts up a major fight, considering he was an even better prospect than Vander Esch prior to suffering a career-threatening knee injury during the Fiesta Bowl in January 2016.
Smith could serve as the full-time middle linebacker this coming season, Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News reports.
The 2016 second-round pick sat out his entire rookie season while recovering from a major knee injury that caused nerve damage in his leg. He then worked in a part-time role for the majority of last season, with Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens getting most of the snaps when the Cowboys used their nickel defense. Smith nonetheless managed to pile up 81 tackles, two forced fumbles and a sack in 16 games, likely setting him up for a larger role in 2018 after Hitchens signed with the Chiefs. A three-down role still shouldn't be taken for granted, considering Smith struggled in coverage last season and may never fully regain the elite athleticism he displayed at Notre Dame. The Cowboys could even move Smith to strong-side linebacker -- which likely would mean a two-down role -- if they procure a viable alternative for the inside job. Smith will be an intriguing IDP option if emerges from training camp with an every-down gig.
Smith finished the regular season with 81 tackles (50 solo), two passes defended, two forced fumbles and a sack in 16 games.
While he had his ups and down as a rookie, it's still impressive that he was able to suit up for all 16 games given that he missed the entire 2016 campaign recovering from the catastrophic knee injury that ended his college career at Notre Dame. Cowboys starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens is a free agent, and if Hitchens heads elsewhere Smith could enter 2018 atop the depth chart at the position, a spot that would provide him with some intriguing IDP upside -- especially if he regains more of the elite athleticism he flashed in college with further rehab.
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