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Hankins, Smith’s return to Cowboys are welcomed, provided they’re really ready

The Cowboys suffered a pair of significant blows to both sides of their interior lines over the last month. Johnathan Hankins, Dallas’ top run stuffer, fell to a high ankle sprain in Week 14. Then in Week 17, the Cowboys lost LG Tyler Smith to a torn plantar fascia late in the third quarter.

The absences of Smith and Hankins were felt as the Cowboys struggled to replace the all-important starters in the lineup. Dallas’ running game fell to -0.340 EPA/rush in the fourth quarter without Smith. And since Hankins was lost, the Cowboys’ run defense has allowed a success rate of 48 percent on the ground, which ranks 31st in the NFL during that stretch.

So, when Mike McCarthy addressed their respective injury statuses this week, saying there’s a chance both would be available for the regular season finale, Cowboys Nation collectively rejoiced. Both sides of the ball stand to improve with their return and Dallas needs a win in Week 19 to secure the NFC East crown and the No. 2 seed for the postseason.

But given the importance of both players to the Cowboys, Dallas can’t afford to jeopardize their long-term impact for some short-term gains in Week 18. Given the falloff behind Smith and Hankins in the lineup, some argue the risk of re-injury isn’t worth it.

To clear something up at the start, there are no indications either specific player is at an added risk of re-injury by returning in Week 18 vs returning in the wild card round. But high ankle sprains in general, do have added injury risk is a player comes back too early. Similarly, while each case is unique, a torn plantar fascia has the potential for re-injury or be the cause of ancillary injuries if a player is compensating for pain.

The Cowboys clearly want Smith and Hankins back in the lineup this week, but not if it potentially has negative effects on their postseason roster.

Replacing Smith

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

When Smith was lost, T.J. Bass was the next man up at LG. As a rookie undrafted free agent, Bass obviously represents a significant falloff from the first rounder he replaces. He’s played a total of 147 pass blocking snaps in 2023, and only given up five pressures and sack. With that said, Bass is generally regarded as replacement level and not a player the Cowboys want to be starting in the postseason.

The Cowboys have other players on the roster who could figure into the mix instead, but all year Bass has served as the top alternate at guard, capably playing both sides of the line at a moment’s notice. It’s unlikely anyone passes him on the depth chart.

Replacing Hankins

(Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Replacing Hankins has been a group effort in Dallas. The Cowboys have used Carl Davis, Neville Gallimore, Chauncey Golston and the rookie Mazi Smith more since Hankins was lost. None of whom have been particularly great against the run.

The nature of Hankins’ position in the defensive interior makes it difficult to grade. Other DTs in Dallas have better lateral ability and can be better in pursuit down the line. But it’s hard to argue the Cowboys aren’t a better team when Hankins is available. And in critical short-yardage situations, he’s virtually irreplaceable on the Dallas defense.

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Conclusion

Jersey. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Jersey. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

There’s no question the Cowboys are a much better team with Hankins and Smith on the field. And unless something is specifically stated about their risk of re-injury, it has to be assumed their return will be handled responsibly from the medical staff.

While Smith only missed a quarter of action from his injury, Hankins has been out multiple weeks. Easing him into a Week 18 game might be a great way to get him into game-shape for the playoffs. Hankins is never going to be an every-down player, but even a part-time workload can be tough to jump into when the player is pushing 340-pounds.

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire