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Despite being the early favorite to win the NFC East in 2021, the Dallas Cowboys first have to rebound from a dismal 2020 campaign. Last season, they declined in production across most units, including the linebacker position, and their faltering defense ranked 28th in the NFL in points allowed.
Looking for a solution in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Cowboys selected linebacker Micah Parsons with the No. 12 pick, signaling some trouble for veteran Jaylon Smith as the LB corps received a likely new starter.
According to Bleacher Report’s Chris Roling, there are speculative talks surrounding Smith’s long-term relationship with Dallas. Roling ranked Smith, 26, as a top NFL veteran projected to get cut before the 2021-2022 season.
“Smith finished with a career-high 154 combined tackles in 2020, but his PFF grade dropped from 70.2 the year prior to a replacement-level 54.2,” noted Roling.
“Much like with Landon Collins, Smith’s contract might be his best hope of staying put. The Cowboys would get zero cap savings by releasing him, although they could carve out $7.2 million by trading him. With Parsons and Cox now in the fray alongside 2018 No. 19 overall pick Leighton Vander Esch, Smith may be expendable. If the Cowboys can find a willing trade partner for him, they might prefer giving more snaps to their younger linebackers.”
By drafting Micah Parsons out of Penn State and fourth-round pick Jabril Cox out of North Dakota State/LSU, a rebuild to restore the linebacking corps under Dan Quinn, the new defensive coordinator for the Cowboys after former DC Mike Nolan’s dismissal, is in progress.
From the start of OTAs, rumors suggested that Dallas’ defensive plan doesn’t involve bringing back 2019 Pro Bowler Jaylon Smith, with Cox, Parsons and a healthy Leighton Vander Esch set to fill out the group.
When they signed Smith to a six-year, $68.4 million contract extension in 2019, the Cowboys were optimistic that his pairing with 2018 first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch would create a formidable threat on defense and complement Demarcus Lawrence’s quarterback rush.
Injuries derailed Vander Esch in the past two seasons, and Jaylon Smith — who stayed healthy and offered some production — was evaluated by the figures on his contract in 2020. Smith recorded 154 combined tackles last year and has yet to miss a game due to injury.
As the report from heavy.com points out, cutting the linebacker at this point in the offseason would not save the Cowboys any salary cap space, so the only possibility for value would be to trade him.
The Dallas Cowboys previously declined to exercise Leighton Vander Esch’s fifth-year option, leaving him a free agent in 2022.
With Parsons and Cox providing a glimpse into the future of Dallas’ defense, Smith’s veteran experience poses a much greater investment opportunity for Dan Quinn, head coach Mike McCarthy and Stephen Jones compared to Cox, a 23-year-old rookie.
Dallas hopes to keep a returning Dak Prescott on the field by keeping opposing offenses on the bench, and their potential improvement on defense keeps the Cowboys as a dark horse team to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.