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The move certainly shocked plenty of people. The Dallas Cowboys have released Jaylon Smith, once seen as the leader of their defense, just four games into the 2021 season. Smith certainly was no longer the central figure for the team, but still his release has raised many questions as to the timing of it all and what happens next.
Smith finished his Cowboys career having played in 68 games. He totaled 516 tackles including 20 for loss with 9 career sacks. Smith had two interceptions forced six fumbles and recovered five, including a scintillating return touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a few years ago.
How much and how well had he been playing this season? What are the financial ramifications of his release? What was the deal with his injury guarantee? Why didn’t the Cowboys release him during the offseason? Why didn’t they try to trade him to another team? Why did so many fans dislike someone with his back story? Who is going to play in his place? What happens next for Smith? What about all those No. 9 jerseys? All these are answered below.
How much and how well had he been playing this season?
(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
In 2020, Smith played 1,081 snaps on defense, 97.8% of all available snaps. When asked in the offseason if he was worried about the Cowboys releasing him, Smith famously told reporters to “watch the tape,” indicating that his performance on the tape would show that question was without merit. Clearly, new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn thought otherwise.
Dallas signed Neal in the offseason for more money than any other free agent acquisition in a frugal offseason and then spent their first overall draft pick and a fourth rounder on the position.
The impact was immediately felt. Smith’s snap count through four games in 2021 was down to just 120, or 61.9% of snaps. That’s with Neal missing the last two contests due to a positive COVID test and Micah Parsons playing extensive time at defensive end. In the two games Neal was available, Smith played just 51.4% of available linebacker snaps.
As for how well he has been playing, it’s been a mixed bag. The lesser amount of snaps seem to be better for him as he hasn’t been credited with a missed tackle all season
What are the financial ramifications of his release?
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According to Over the Cap, Smith had earned $24,165,972 during the first five years of his Cowboys career.
When the Cowboys decided not to release Smith in the first five days of the new league year, his $7.2 million base salary for the season locked in and was guaranteed.
While there is likely some level of offset clause in Smith’s deal — if he signs with another club, Dallas saves whatever the new deal is paying him for the remainder of 2021 —a new deal is likely to be for minimal money this season.
Dallas has already paid Smith for four of 18 weeks of the season, or $1.6 million. That means there is $5.2 million of payments will still go to Smith (which will adjust with a new contract for whatever portion of the remaining 14 weeks he signs for).
Smith also took up an additional $2.6 million of 2021 cap space based on his prorated signing bonus from the extension he signed in 2019. Four weeks took up just under $580,000 of that, so there’s a little more than $2 million of dead money on the cap from there.
In total, Smith will have cost Dallas $9.8 million of cap space including $7.2 million of cash for 61.9% of the snaps over four games.
But there’s more.
That $2.6 million prorated bonus money that was on the cap this year is just the 2021 allocation of that signing bonus. There’s still $6.8 million of that bonus money that hadn’t yet been allocated and that all accelerates onto the 2022 cap.
Dallas will have that $6.8 million in what’s known as dead money, taking up cap space next year for a player not on the team. But there’s an alternative way to look at this.
Smith could’ve seen his 2022 base salary locked in and the Cowboys woudn’t have much control over that. Here’s why.
Smith's 2022 injury guarantee
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Part of his original contract, Smith’s 2022 base salary of $9.2 million was guaranteed for injury. What does that mean? Say Smith suffered a season-ending injury this season and wasn’t ready to pass a physical by the start of the new league year next March. His salary would have locked in and Dallas would’ve had no choice but to pay him the full amount.
Say Smith gets nicked up sometime this season and chooses to wait until late February to have surgery. Can’t pass a physical in mid-March? Salary guaranteed.
Dallas was going to be in a precarious position if he stayed on the roster because any of those scenarios would have hindered their future options, and they clearly weren’t looking to retain Smith beyond this year.
Why didn't they do this during the offseason?
(AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
That’s the million dollar question.
Smith’s extension was written in a way that gave him $14.5 million over the $4.5 million he would have made in 2019 base salary and a second-round RFA tender in 2020. With the way the two bonuses are amortized over the length of a deal, the window for the club to get out of the contract is, for all intents and purposes, after the 2021 season.
However there was a way that Dallas could have washed their hands of a bad agreement, by releasing him in the first five days of the 2021 league year, back at the start of free agency in March.
If Dallas had decided to cut bait at the time, they would have carried $9.4 million in dead money across this current and the next seasons. However, they would have avoided his 2021 base salary of $7.2 million becoming guaranteed.
They could have released him as a June 1 casualty, ate the $2.6 million of bonus money that would’ve stayed on the 2021 books and taken a cap hit of $6.8 million on the 2022 cap. Doing the math at home, yes that $7.2 million in actual cash and cap savings could’ve been rolled over to cover that $6.8 million hit.
The Cowboys decided it was best to pay up, and although they would never admit it publicly, hope a new coaching staff would be able to reverse the step back, although it’s pretty clear to most observers his decline is somewhat tied to a physical inability to do what is necessary to play the position well.
Why didn't they try to trade him?
(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
The Cowboys received trade offers in the past for Smith, but didn’t bite. More than likely, they explored the option recently without much fanfare. In fact, Smith hasn’t yet been officially released, so the public announcement of the coming move is likely a last-ditch effort to drum up interest to see if anyone is willing to give up a late-round pick to guarantee getting his services.
But therein lies the rub. The reason Dallas needs to make sure to cast him off before his injury guarantee kicks in is likely the reason why teams don’t want to trade for him. A trade assumes all contract terms, which means if a club doesn’t like what they are getting, they’d not only be on the hook for the remainder of his high 2021 salary, but they’d have the clock press put on them to make a decision about next year with his injury guarantee still floating in the air.
Why weren't his performances enough for most fans?
(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
Smith supporters have long pointed to his high tackle totals when arguing why Smith was so much better than fans were giving him credit for. However for those with a sharper eye, they’ve noticed multiple issues in his play. Smith’s effort on several plays have been brought into question, as well as questions to his overall health.
Everyone knows Smith’s story of recovering from a devastating knee injury at the end of his college career that caused him to redshirt his rookie season and ramp up his play in 2017. That peaked in 2018 with what most agree was a Pro Bowl caliber season, but things have deteriorated since then.
Smith’s ability to turn and run with opposing players has digressed each season, and he’s often taken himself out of plays by shooting the wrong gaps and making incorrect reads on run plays. Yes, his tackle stats have been high, but all tackles aren’t created equal. They all bring a play to a halt, but tackles two yards past the line of scrimmage and eight yards past the line of scrimmage all end up in the same stat bucket, but with drastically different impacts.
Also, Smith rubbed several fans the wrong way with his on-field but after-play antics. He often was seen trying to upstage other players and many think he put building his brand and image was put in front of improving his level of play. Any celebration another player had, Smith had to make his way into the camera shot. There were instances where he’d celebrate his play while the ball was still alive. There were multiple occasions when the team was down bad that he’d look to celebrate his personal accomplishments.
There were countless moments like this:
100%. Always remember this video from Hard Knocks. Such selfish behavior pic.twitter.com/9Tx8KbZ4wb
— Preston (@PrestonCowboys) October 6, 2021
Who is going to play in his place?
(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
With Neal returning, the Cowboys certainly have their top three linebackers in place. Parsons and Neal are the starters, Leighton Vander Esch is the rotation guy and plays when Quinn wants to deploy Parsons in a front-five capacity.
The Cowboys have been deploying three safety sets going back to last season and with the surprise play of Jayron Kearse, seem to be in perfect position to do more of that. Safety Donovan Wilson should be returning sometime soon from his groin injury, and the Cowboys also have Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker at the position. Playing more safeties makes sense as the NFL transitions more and more to a passing game, requiring players who have the ability to turn and run in coverage, even when their primary responsibility may be closer to the line of scrimmage.
All of these players are likely better options to have on the field, considering how opponents have to pass so often to keep up with Kellen Moore’s high-powered offense.
The team will also likely consider getting former LSU rookie Jabril Cox more snaps. He played just four snaps at the end of the Week 3 blowout win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
What happens to Smith next, does he hit waivers?
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
As a vested veteran, once Smith is officially released he is free to negotiate a new deal with anybody. He does not have to clear waivers, a claiming period where teams can absorb his current contract in full.
He is free to sign with anyone, including this week’s opponent the New York Giants.
Does he get a refund on all the No. 9 jerseys he purchased?
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Many fans were shocked when the NFL announced they were forcing players to pay for inventory if they wanted to switch jersey numbers this offseason and Smith took the opportunity to change to No. 9. The cost was said to be around $500,000.
That money is gone. Now whether or not Smith had a side deal with Jerry Jones for the owner to absorb the cost of all the jerseys, which were purchased for retail price, that’s on the individual fan to decide.