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Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy explains ‘big-picture’ decision to release LB Jaylon Smith

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FRISCO, Texas — Cowboys management met Tuesday for their regularly-scheduled personnel meeting.

They reviewed each player on the team’s roster and decided: It was time.

“This was a big-picture roster move,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday morning.

Former Pro Bowl linebacker Jaylon Smith, who has started 56 games for the Cowboys since 2017, was released.

The decision was multifaceted. Smith’s contract, his play and the Cowboys’ young starters developing quicker than expected factored in. The leverage given to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in his first season was also a component in pulling the trigger. In 2019, Smith signed a five-year extension through 2025 worth $64 million with $35.5 million guaranteed, including his 2021 salary of $7.2 million. Smith is still owed that salary this year. But the Cowboys wanted to avoid another contract implication: the $9.2 million injury guarantee for 2022 that would have triggered should Smith had been hurt this year.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) talks with Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy against the Washington Football Team in an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020.
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) talks with Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy against the Washington Football Team in an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020.

Smith had not missed a game since the 2017 season began after redshirting his 2016 rookie year while rehabilitating a gruesome knee injury in which he sustained nerve damage. But Smith’s production had dipped in recent seasons, criticism mounting. On several plays in Sunday's 36-28 win over the Panthers, Smith stood nearby a pursuit or was handily blocked out of a tackle.

The Cowboys, who have rebounded from the 31st ranked run defense to the sixth so far this year, believed they had better options.

“This is about progress and a little more clarity with defensive packages and personnel groups and how we want to play,” McCarthy said. “The direction of how we’re approaching the season, the ability to develop a roster top to bottom, particularly with the young players.”

The Cowboys drafted Micah Parsons with the 12th overall selection this spring. Parsons has wrecked game plans as both a linebacker and a hybrid edge rusher stepping in to fill holes due to injury and COVID-19 absences. Sunday against the Panthers, Parsons started at linebacker beside 2018 first-round selection Leighton Vander Esch. The Cowboys have also been pleased with the production from offseason signing Keanu Neal and rookie fourth-round selection Jabril Cox. Neal, who was not fully vaccinated, missed two games due to COVID-19 but returned to practice Wednesday. The Cowboys also have linebacker Luke Gifford on their roster.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones met with Smith first to discuss the release. McCarthy met with the veteran afterward. Jones took a chance on Smith’s rehabilitation when selecting the linebacker in the second round of the 2016 draft. Smith's return to a high level, a force in 2019 and the team tackling leader in 2019 and 2020, was one of Jones’ favorite redemption stories in the last five years.

McCarthy emphasized Wednesday morning that in releasing Smith, he is “not trying to send a message to the locker room” about the sixth-year pro. Rather, linebackers on the active and practice-squad rosters will have an opportunity to vie for snaps on the 3-1 Cowboys’ defense. McCarthy said he appreciated the time he spent with Smith.

“Jaylon’s an excellent football player,” McCarthy said. “He played good football for us. In my time, he totally bought into the new direction of the program, everything we’ve done, a guy who practices every single day, he plays his ass off.

“I have nothing but respect for him.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jaylon Smith: Dallas Cowboys' Mike McCarthy explains surprise release