FRISCO, Texas — Considering his comeback from a serious knee injury that nearly ended his NFL career before it could really begin, Jaylon Smith was one of the Dallas Cowboys’ best stories.
In the end, the production did not match the story.
The Cowboys’ decision to release Smith can be viewed as a surprise because of what he was — a 100-plus-tackle-a-year linebacker with a Pro Bowl on his résumé and a contract that averaged $11.4 million a year — not what he is now, which is a backup linebacker who doesn’t run as well as he used to and struggles in coverage.
The timing of the release might seem confusing. Why did the Cowboys wait four games into the 2021 season to do this? Why not wait a little longer? According to sources, they had some trade discussions and were willing to eat a good portion of his $7.2 million base salary, but nothing came close to happening.
Plus, Smith’s $9.2 million base salary in 2022 was guaranteed for injury. The Cowboys did not want to take the financial risk, so they were willing to take the full cap hit of releasing him now. Next year, Smith will cost $6.8 million against the cap.
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With how well rookie linebacker/defensive end Micah Parsons is playing, the return of linebacker Keanu Neal from the reserve/COVID-19 list and the potential coordinator Dan Quinn sees in linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, there simply wasn’t enough room for Smith, who did not help on special teams.
In former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells’ vernacular, Smith became a progress stopper — meaning Smith was in the way of other players who progress beyond him. The Cowboys like what Jabril Cox, their 2021 fourth-round pick, did in the preseason and believe he can be more of a defensive contributor as the season goes along.
Smith’s return from the ligament tears and nerve damage he suffered in 2016 Fiesta Bowl, his final game at Notre Dame, should be lauded. Some teams took him off their draft board because of the injury. The Cowboys took the risk in the second round.
After he sat out his rookie season, he played in 68 straight games. He put in the work that made him a Pro Bowl pick in 2019. The Cowboys signed him to a massive contract extension before that season, guaranteeing him $35.5 million.
At the news conference announcing the deal, Smith talked about his brand and business opportunities. He invested in minority-owned businesses through his entrepreneurial program. But there was some internal consternation that he was focused more on his business affairs than his on-field work. He paid “mid-six figures” to change his jersey number from No. 54 to No. 9 when the NFL laxed the jersey number rules, something that would have cost him nothing had he waited until 2022.
But the Cowboys’ decision to release Smith was about football.
The story that started out with such promise — a Notre Dame legend overcoming hardships with America’s Team — simply did not match the hype.