Following their victory in Week 4 over the Carolina Panthers, the Dallas Cowboys have made a decision few saw coming as they ready to take on the New York Giants this coming Sunday. Jaylon Smith, the team’s former second-round pick, has been notified of his release — sources told CBS Sports Tuesday. Smith entered training camp on a roster bubble created by the selection of Micah Parsons in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, followed by a double down at the position when they selected Jabril Cox in the fourth round after signing Keanu Neal and converting him to linebacker.
And with that, Smith was essentially put on notice, only weeks after the Cowboys guaranteed his salary for 2021. And because of that guarantee, this release will force the team to willfully digest his remaining salary, which amounts to roughly $7.6 million. Sources also note the decision was relayed to Smith directly by owner Jerry Jones — the biggest advocate for the veteran linebacker after helping to nurse him back from a devastating knee injury many thought would end his NFL career before it got started.
Instead, with the help of the Cowboys medical staff, Smith returned to the sport and earned Pro Bowl honors, before suffering regression year-over-year leading into 2021. Now released, he’ll look for a fresh start elsewhere, and the Cowboys will turn to Leighton Vander Esch — from a veteran aspect — along with Parsons and, likely, Cox ascending toward the top of the LB depth chart.
The decision itself carries a timing many are questioning, and for valid reason.
First, the Cowboys signed Smith to a five-year, $65 million contract extension in 2019, and the structure of it means they’ll potentially eat millions against their salary cap (key word is “potentially,” but more to come on that in a moment) to release a linebacker who played in 54 (76%) of the defensive snaps in the Week 2 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, delivering nine tackles and seeing his stock rise a bit in the process. He’d go on to log 50 defensive snaps in Week 3 against the Philadelphia Eagles, but the writing on the wall might’ve gotten a bit easier to read in seeing how his snap count this past Sunday dwindled to only 28, which was in large part due to the Cowboys moving Parsons back to linebacker for that contest.
And considering Smith doesn’t play special teams, it appears defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was beginning to find it difficult to force him into the rotation simply for salary purposes. So, the linebacker who paid thousands of his salary in a controversial decision to switch his jersey from No. 54 to No. 9, the one he wore at Notre Dame, will never wear it again for the Cowboys.
Additionally, from a roster standpoint, the decision between who’ll start at strong safety when Donovan Wilson (groin) is healthy could see him or Jayron Kearse, a recent standout who’s earned the role of starter in the absence of Wilson, rotate at the position while the other helps in nickel packages at linebacker. There are several ways Quinn can spin his web at the position, and it all makes Smith that much more disposable but, even more so, that much more of a liability when considering the contractual clauses.
Speaking of salary, sources also point at a clause that will guarantee Smith his full salary in 2022 if he’s injured, to the tune of $9.2 million. They felt their only other true option was a trade, but the interest they received on Smith for a possible trade earlier this year is now dried up to start the month of October, as positional need around the league doesn’t vibe with the $7.6 million salary the acquiring club would have to absorb to bring him onboard in addition to giving up an asset of some sort — even if that asset was a conditional late-round pick in 2022 or beyond.
There’s an added dice roll here for the Cowboys, because should Smith sign elsewhere, there’s offset language in his contract that would likely delete some of the $7.6 million cap hit for his release. It’s a financial chess move of sorts by Jones and the Cowboys, hoping to avoid the full cap penalty for the remainder of 2021 while also dodging a near $10 million hit in 2022, should Smith go down with injury.
With Neal set to return this week from the reserve/COVID-19 list, the Cowboys were going to have to make a corresponding roster move, and they basically just did.