Cowboys Make Big Contract Move with LB Jaylon Smith

Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith

Getty Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith

Jaylon Smith now can breathe easily knowing his roster spot is safe for another season.

As reported by the Dallas Morning News, the Cowboys‘ highly-paid linebacker had his $7.2 million 2021 base salary become guaranteed Sunday, as he remained under contract through the fifth day of the new league year.

On a similar token, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott’s $12.4 million salary for 2022 was “locked in” Sunday.

Both players landed lucrative, market-resetting extensions in 2019. By 2020, the deals devolved into franchise albatrosses, forcing owner/general manager/check-signer Jerry Jones to go on the defensive.

“Well, I like what we’ve spent and what we’ve done even going all the way back to picking him on Jaylon Smith,” Jones said in November. “That’s been a home run. He’s everything and more we thought he could be, coming back from the injury, when we got him in the second round. He was on the first round board. So that is absolutely a winner.”

“I’ve said this before: Zeke is our best player,” he continued. “He certainly, yesterday, would … he was up against a tough situation with where we are. But still, I like both those players. I think we’re lucky to have both of those guys. I wouldn’t take the resources that I’m putting there and trade not having those guys for those resources. I would not do that.”

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Deeper Dive

“Contributing” to a historically bad defense that surrendered the most points (473) in Cowboys history, Smith notched a team-high 154 tackles last season. The NFL’s third-richest ‘backer added 1.5 sacks, one interception, and zero forced fumbles as impact plays were few and far in-between.

Smith, 26, is entering year three of his five-year, $63.75 million contract. Left unchanged, he’s set 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 Cowboys are considering ways to clear cap room through contract restructures and releases. But one option that is not on the table is the cutting of maligned linebacker Jaylon Smith, according to a source,” Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote in February.

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‘Plan’ for Neal

The Cowboys made a quality splash over the weekend, signing former Falcons linebacker/safety Keanu Neal to a one-year deal. Neal reunites with ex-Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn, now Dallas’ defensive coordinator, and will be deployed as a hybrid defender, helping to improve the league’s second-worst run-stopping unit.

“The Cowboys’ plan for Keanu Neal right now is for him to play safety and linebacker depending on certain packages in Dan Quinn’s defense, but he is not locked into one spot specifically. Having that flexibility is a bonus as to why they added him,” ESPN’s Todd Archer reported Monday.

And despite the addition of Neal, who will moonlight at weakside LB, “Smith’s roster spot not believed to be in immediate jeopardy,” ESPN’s Ed Werder reported Sunday.

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Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL