“We’re really excited about him as a player,” Cowboys 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 played the second-most snaps among the team’s linebackers last season, staying on the field for 55 percent of the plays. It was more than the Cowboys wanted him to play as he returned from a devastating injury to his left knee that kept him off the field in his rookie season of 2016.
“He probably played more than we wanted him to play at the outset of the season,” Garrett said. “When Hitch [Anthony Hitchens] was hurt and then Sean [Lee] 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’ve got to remember that he’s a [player who missed his rookie season], 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 the Cowboys are unable to re-sign Hitchens, who becomes a free agent March 14, middle linebacker becomes a priority.