The Dallas Cowboys have a logjam at linebacker and former Pro Bowler Jaylon Smith may be the odd man out when it comes to being a starter in 2021. The Athletic’s Jon Machota predicts Smith will not secure one of the three starting linebacker spots. Machota has Keanu Neal, Micah Parsons and Leighton Vander Esch ahead of Smith in his projected depth chart.
“We’re not allowed to report which players are working with which teams, so we won’t break any rules here,” Machota said of his projections. “But from what I’ve seen since the first training camp practice on July 22 through Wednesday, here’s an educated guess on what the Cowboys’ two-deep could be for Week 1.”
The talk heading into 2021 has been about a potential bounce-back season for Smith, but the linebacker has struggled in the early preseason games. Pro Football Focus gave Smith a 49.4 overall grade (out of a possible 100) through the first two preseason matchups. Smith’s coverage has been particularly bad with a 45.9 rating, but the linebacker fared better against the run with a 62.6 score along with a 59.3 pass-rushing number.
Smith’s grade has steadily declined since his impressive 84 score during the 2018 season. The Cowboys linebacker followed it up with a 70.2 in 2019 and 54.2 last season.
Rookie Linebackers Parsons & Cox Are Likely to Take Snaps Away From Smith
The Cowboys had a defensive-heavy draft in 2021 with a particular emphasis on linebackers. Dallas selected Micah Parsons (No. 12, first round) and Jabril Cox (No. 115, fourth round) with early picks. Parsons is already looking like the future cornerstone of the defense, but both players are expected to be part of the linebacker rotation.
With Parsons seemingly locking up one starting spot, it leaves Keanu Neal, Leighton Vander Esch and Smith fighting for the final two linebacker positions. There is some hope that Smith can turn the corner when the regular season begins under new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. The former Falcons coach has been complimentary of Smith in training camp.
“One thing that has jumped out to me is I feel like his stride extension has improved,” Quinn said of Smith, per Blogging the Boys. “I feel every bit of his speed. There has been a couple of plays where he was flying. He is working extremely hard and he is closing. Vroom. You feel that speed. That is one of things that I have seen. …I think he is a physical player. He has always had a run and hit factor to him. That is something I looking forward to seeing come to light for him.”
Smith Has a $7.2 Million Salary as Part of a 6-Year, $68 Million Contract
To be clear, Smith is still going to very much be part of the linebacker rotation, but losing his starting gig would be a sign of regression from his 2019 Pro Bowl campaign. Smith is slated to have a $7.2 million salary as part of a six-year, $68.4 million contract that runs through 2025. This is a significant amount of money to pay a rotational player, especially given Dak Prescott’s massive new extension.
If Smith’s play does not improve, we can expect to hear the trade rumors heat up by the mid-season deadline. The Cowboys have a potential out in his deal this coming offseason, but his release would result in a $6.8 million dead cap hit, per Spotrac.