The Cowboys have lots of young players looking for new contracts, but Jerry Jones struck quickly to hand linebacker Jaylon Smith a rich new deal.
Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper are all looking to get new deals from the Cowboys before the regular season begins. In an interesting move, GM Jerry Jones opted to get a new agreement done with linebacker Jaylon Smith instead. That decision has certainly raised a lot of eyebrows around the NFL.
Observers wouldn’t have been so interested in the deal if the Cowboys had been able to ink Smith to a below-market deal. That’s absolutely not the case with the linebacker’s five-year, $64 million contract. Dallas isn’t paying Smith like an emerging young talent, they’re compensating Smith like a guy they believe will be a perennial All-Pro.
Smith’s new salary of $12.8 million per year makes him the fourth-highest paid inside linebacker in football. Only Bobby Wagner, C.J. Mosley and Deion Jones currently earn more on an annual basis. Those three players have accomplished significantly more in their careers than Smith has to date.
For the record, that doesn’t make this a bad deal for the Cowboys. Smith bounced back from a potentially career-ending injury to play really good football in 2017 and 2018. Last year, in particular, he progressed to becoming one of the most productive young linebackers in football. His 82 solo tackles were a big factor in the Cowboys defense making a substantial move up the NFL standings in most statistical categories.
On the other hand, middle linebacker isn’t viewed as the most pivotal position in modern NFL defenses. Recent trends have teams gravitating towards paying premium prices for players who can create turnovers and/or create havoc in the opposing backfield. Smith managed four sacks last year, but he doesn’t have the skill-set to grow into a double-digit producer on an annual basis. He is athletic enough to make plays from sideline to sideline, but he’s not going to wreck opposing offenses from the middle linebacker position. There’s a significant argument to be made that Leighton Vander Esch is actually the team’s most dynamic linebacker. He’s still on his rookie contract, but he will need to be paid before Smith’s deal is up.
Handing Smith such a sizable contract also proves the team is prioritizing him over quite a few of its other big-name players. The offensive trio of Elliott, Prescott and Cooper all want to be paid like a top-five player at their respective positions. On the defensive side of the ball, cornerback Byron Jones will also be looking for a big payday soon. At some point, Smith’s deal may cost the Cowboys the opportunity to retain one of their other important core players.
That makes it a risk for Dallas. If Smith turns into a perennial All-Pro linebacker then it should hold up as a good example of salary cap management. If he remains what he is now, an above-average starter, it’s going to look like a pretty significant overpay as time goes on. The Cowboys are making a big bet on Smith. Jones and his front office really need this one to pay off.