However, with several core players headed toward free agency, that space will quickly shrink, and the team will need to make tough choices about who is important to keep around long-term.
There are obvious players who will stick around. The Cowboys traded a first-rounder for wideout Amari Cooper. Team owner Jerry Jones says that he has no doubts about quarterback Dak Prescott’s future with the team. But after that, some important players won’t be able to fit under the cap.
One of those players who is forcing his way into the conversation is linebacker Jaylon Smith, who is set to hit free agency after next season. And recent report from 247Sports's Patrik Walker says that the Cowboys have begun extension talks with the 23-year-old.
Jaylon Smith is one of the NFL’s best comeback stories
Smith entered his junior season at Notre Dame as a candidate to go very early in the 2016 NFL draft, but those plans went sideways when he suffered a brutal ACL and LCL tear in the Fiesta Bowl less than four months before the draft.
The Cowboys still liked Smith enough to take a chance on him with the 34th overall pick, and they were rewarded after he sat out his rookie season. Smith played in all 16 games in 2017 — starting six — and finished third on the team with 81 tackles. After becoming a full-time starter last season, he blossomed into a star.
Despite playing alongside rookie sensation Leighton Vander Esch, who finished second in the NFL in tackles, Smith racked up 121 combined tackles, which was tied for the 12th-most in the league. He added two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, plus four sacks and six tackles for a loss.
How much would Smith cost the Cowboys?
Although the Cowboys don’t need to extend Smith for another year, it makes sense to move quickly if they think he is a key part of their long-term plans. For one thing, Smith’s price could go up if he shows he can be healthy and productive again, and the team also would prefer to not wager against other teams.
Only 11 traditional linebackers make $10 million, but Smith has a case to be among the best, and his salary could climb into that territory. The Cowboys will probably be looking at that figure, and it could get even higher if other teams get involved in free agency.
The New York Jets reset the market on middle linebackers this offseason when they signed C.J. Mosley to a deal that pays $17 million annually. That crushed Luke Kuechly’s previous record of a $12.4 million AAV. Even Kwon Alexander got $13.5 million from the San Francisco 49ers, and he has a similar injury history to Smith.
The Cowboys have other options, including using a first-round tender on him, but it may behoove them to get a long-term deal out of the way instead of using short-term stopgaps.
What would a Smith contract mean for the rest of the team?
Smith won’t cost nearly as much as Prescott or Cooper, but he’ll be a significant investment. That could spell trouble for All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott and Pro Bowl cornerback Byron Jones.
It won’t be impossible to fit multiple of those three players under the cap — even after signing DeMarcus Lawrence to a $105 million deal — but the Cowboys may prefer flexibility for when they eventually need to lock up Vander Esch to a big deal.
Elliott, in particular, will command a lot of money, likely in the neighborhood of Le’Veon Bell’s $27 million in guarantees. But there’s plenty of debate about how much running backs are worth, and there are already rumors about Jets head coach/interim GM Adam Gase being upset at Bell’s contract. Do the Cowboys want to invest nearly 10 percent of their salary cap in a running back when they may find an internal replacement after drafting a pair of backs last month?
The Cowboys may still retain Smith and Elliott, but it speaks volumes that Smith may be the next in line to earn an extension.
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