DALLAS — At 3-1 and atop the NFC East, the Dallas Cowboys have the look of one of the better teams in the NFC just a month into the season. Their offense is difficult to defend and the squad has featured an opportunistic defense that has seen an improvement after last season’s miserable effort.
Things seem to be going smoothly for the Cowboys, which is why the news that the team has decided to release LB Jaylon Smith sent shockwaves. Rarely does a team cut a former top draft pick who’s been a contributor for the last few years, earned a big second contract, who hasn’t missed a game in over four seasons, and, by all accounts, is a solid locker room guy.
Smith was a captain for the Cowboys as recently as last week’s win over the Carolina Panthers. However, the Cowboys saw fit to cut the 2019 Pro Bowl linebacker just four games into the season.
Although the timing of the release appears odd with the Cowboys rolling, Smith's play has not been up to snuff in recent years and the Cowboys felt that there were other performers who could use the roster spot. Smith hasn’t started a game this year and his snaps have been greatly reduced to get more effective linebackers on the field.
The timing was also odd when you consider that Smith signed an extension before the 2019 season. Smith had a breakout season in 2018 and Jerry Jones saw fit to reward him with a five-year extension worth $64 million, including $35.5 guaranteed. However, Smith had two more seasons under his rookie contract at the time, which made it a head scratching decision.
Almost immediately after the ink dried on Smith’s new deal, the play from the 2016 second-round selection tailed off significantly and he’s frequently been the source of vitriol among Cowboys fans. After his second consecutive disappointing season in 2020, one in which Smith finished third in the NFL in tackles, Smith told those who were critical of him to “watch the tape.” The organization finally decided to take Smith up on his suggestion and now he’s out of a job.
The biggest question seems to be why now? Why didn’t the Cowboys move on before his guaranteed money hit in March if they thought Smith’s play didn’t warrant a roster spot?
Only those inside the organization know the answers, but there are some solid guesses. First, the Cowboys didn’t know who they would sign in free agency, or how the draft would fall. In March, the Cowboys were short on talent at linebacker and it likely felt like they needed to guard themselves against not having depth at the position.
Since the Cowboys kept Smith, they drafted Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox, and signed safety Keanu Neal to play LB. Those three additions helped build out the LB room for Dallas and made Smith expendable.
The Cowboys also may have wanted to find out what new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn could bring out in Smith. Perhaps Quinn scouted Smith and felt that he could get the best out of the veteran LB from Notre Dame. Clearly, that hasn’t happened.
The real answer for why the Cowboys did this now is likely tied to the money. If the team wasn’t going to keep Smith past this year, and they felt like they finally had enough depth at the position, they had to make sure that they weren’t on the hook for Smith’s injury guarantee.
If Smith was seriously hurt at some point in 2021 and couldn’t pass a physical next March, they would’ve had to pay Smith’s $9.2 million salary for 2022.
The Cowboys weren’t going to chance having to pay that cost on Smith, whom they are ready to walk away from. The team is already decreasing his snaps and every LB on the roster can play at Smith’s level. With Neal coming off the COVID-19 list this week; it was time to move on.
Dallas isn’t getting away scot-free for releasing a team captain during a winning streak, however. The team will have $16.6 million in dead cap money on the books for the rest of this season and for 2022. That’s a hefty price for a player who isn’t playing for your team anymore.
Ultimately the Cowboys decided that the roster and money considerations allowed them to move away from a declining player. The timing does remain curious, especially when the team chemistry for the 2021 squad seemed harmonious and releasing a locker room favorite might rock the boat.
That it was a surprising, complicated decision makes it one that many feel the Jones’ aren’t usually capable of making, but the Cowboys felt they’d be a better team now and in the future without Jaylon Smith.
Do you think the Cowboys made the right decision to let Jaylon Smith go? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.