At a time when his long-term future is being called into question, veteran linebacker Jaylon Smith could not be more encouraged about the Dallas Cowboys‘ prospects in 2021.
“Last year, [battling through the COVID-19 pandemic] was foreign. Just getting an opportunity to get at it earlier in the offseason, starting virtual meetings and things of that nature,” Smith said Friday on NFL Network’s Total Access when asked to compare this year versus last. “[New defensive coordinator] Dan Quinn coming in, putting together a great understanding of what he wants our culture to be, and our identity. That’s clear. Just looking forward to this opportunity to be great. Our team, the Cowboys, America’s Team, Cowboys Nation fans, it’s been too long. We got to get it right.”
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) April 23, 2021
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Cowboys Pressured to Move On
A key culprit on a historically bad outfit that surrendered the most points in franchise history, Smith recorded a team-leading 154 tackles in 2020 — year two of his five-year, $63.75 million extension. The NFL’s third-highest-paid LB added 1.5 sacks, one interception, and zero forced fumbles as impact plays were few and far in-between.
On March 22, Dallas guaranteed Smith’s $7.2 million base salary for the upcoming season. On April 11, the team was urged to release him after June 1, for salary cap purposes.
“Given the play of the entire unit last year and all the money poured into the offensive side of the ball, it’s something that has to at least get some consideration from the Dallas front office,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Chris Roling.
On Wednesday, Bleacher Report’s Alex Ballentine named Smith among three Cowboys players — along with left tackle Tyron Smith and cornerback Anthony Brown — who “will be most impacted” by next week’s NFL Draft, depending on who lands where.
“Dallas has already addressed the linebacking corps through free agency. It signed Keanu Neal who is reportedly making the move from safety to linebacker. Leighton Vander Esch could easily be on this list as well. Smith was the 44th-ranked linebacker by PFF last season, while Vander Esch’s grade was ranked 53rd,” Ballentine wrote.
“There are plenty of linebackers the Cowboys could be looking to add to the roster. Micah Parsons could be a target as early as No. 10, while Jamin Davis from Kentucky could be a target with the 44th pick.”
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Here to Stay?
Left undisturbed, Smith is scheduled to count $9.8 million ($7.2 million salary, $2.6 million prorated bonus) against the salary cap in 2021, his age-26 campaign.
Dallas would receive no cap relief by chopping Smith. Designating him a pre-June 1 cut leaves behind $16.6 million in dead money while a post-June 1 release produces $9.8 million in dead cash — and $0 in savings.
“The fact that he lines up every day, the fact that he practices hard every day, plays hard, I thought he gave us some big-time, productive games,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said of Smith in January, per the Star-Telegram. “I think he’s probably one of the ones that was challenged the most as far as the scheme change. I just love his approach and the way he’s gone about it.”
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Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL