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Picking Jaylon Smith: How The Cowboys Made The Controversial Decision

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It looks even more risky now that Rolando McClain has been suspended, but it was largely a result of unexpected circumstances to begin with.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Rookie Minicamp
Jaylon Smith watching practice.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The recent news that Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain has been suspended for ten games has added a renewed emphasis to the debate over the drafting of Jaylon Smith in the second round. Our own Danny Phantom has weighed in with his arguments about why it was a good decision, but he focuses more on the impact Smith will have when (knock on wood) that nerve regenerates and he can start practicing. What is not discussed as much is just how the Cowboys came to pick Smith. The truth is that he was not Plan A for Dallas. He was more Plan D - and the situation at the time he was taken was somewhat different than it is now. All that has to be considered before you decide whether the Cowboys made a mistake in taking a player who is not likely to have any impact on the team this year.

Dallas certainly had other ideas for their second-round pick, 34 overall. On the first day of the draft, they used it to put together a trade offer to move back into the first round. The target was the Seattle Seahawks pick at 26. The Cowboys saw an opportunity to get their quarterback of the future, and a possible candidate to supplant Kellen Moore as the primary backup this season, since Paxton Lynch was still on the board. It was an expensive move given the many other places that the team could use talent, but franchise quarterbacks, even unproven ones, are that valuable, as seen by the astronomical prices the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles paid to trade up to the first two spots in the draft to take Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.

However, there was another suitor for the Seahawks’ pick, the Denver Broncos. They were in the unusual position of being a defending Super Bowl champion that had lost both their starting quarterback, the retired Peyton Manning, and his expected successor, Brock Osweiler, who had been stolen away in free agency by the Houston Texans. And they had the last pick in the first round to offer to the Seahawks as part of their package. That pick comes with the fifth year option for a first rounder, and according to reports, that swayed Seattle to take their deal instead of Dallas’, despite the fact that the Cowboys actually offered more value. Had the Broncos not let the Texans outbid them for Osweiler, they would not have been in the market and Dallas would have gotten Lynch. But they were, and the Cowboys were left to move onto Plan B.

According to reports from the draft, that alternate plan was to take a pass rusher. The Cowboys had time to set their strategy for day two of the draft, since they would be the third team on the clock once things recommenced. With only two teams ahead of them, they had a good chance to get a defensive end they liked. Or so they thought.

The first choice for Dallas was Emmanuel Ogbah. However, he was taken by the first team up that day, the Cleveland Browns. The Cowboys had prepared for this, with Kevin Dodd their Plan C. But the Tennessee Titans also coveted Dodd, taking him just ahead of the Cowboys.

This was the worst case scenario for the Cowboys. Badly in need of pass rushers, especially with the looming suspensions of DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, they saw their two candidates gone. Now they had to either go with their third option for the spot or try to trade back. No trade materialized (and they may not have been really interested in entertaining the idea anyway), so they took the fallback player, Smith. Plan D. And you do have to wonder if they put as much thought into an option they didn’t expect to use as they should have.

Those are fairly well established facts. There are also some other factors that may have entered in, but these are more logical inferences based on what has been reported since the draft.

One thing that quickly came out was that the Cowboys believed at the time they took Smith that the New England Patriots were going to take him later in the draft. The inference is that they would liked to have tried to get Smith in a later round, but took him at 34 to make sure they didn’t miss out on him. However, it now appears that the rumored New England interest was either a bit of misinformation or just a bad assumption.

This still leaves the question of why the Cowboys were so interested in Smith, despite the very high probability that he could not play at all in 2016. Outside of the transcendent talent he displayed when healthy, the logical answer seems to be that he was expected to take the place of Rolando McClain as the MIKE linebacker in 2017. McClain had been a productive but not always consistent player so far for the Cowboys, and they had only been willing to sign him to one-year, performance based deals in three consecutive contracts. But he had already served a four game suspension in 2015 for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, apparently due to a fondness for smoking marijuana. It simply did not look like he was a long-term answer for the middle of the defense. At the time of the draft, however, he was already under contract for this season, and reports from then indicate that he was participating in the offseason program. While Smith is still a risk, he looked like a much more reasonable one while McClain was still a part of the plans for this fall.

Then came the OTAs and the much-publicized no-show by McClain. This raises a question of just when he took the test he failed. The NFL generally keeps things behind a curtain, but it is a fact that McClain, having failed previous tests, was subject to year-round random testing, unlike most players, who only have to stay clean for a specified window of testing. Even if the results were not given to him, he surely would have known if he likely tested positive on that random check. If this test happened sometime between the draft and OTAs, he may have realized the pointlessness of showing up for the practices until minicamp, when fines would have kicked in. That is all a matter of connecting some dots, but it makes a great deal of sense. No matter the reasons for passing on the OTAs, McClain still let the team and himself down.

Now McClain is gone for at least ten games, and would likely only be useful to the team after a week or two of getting back into shape after he was allowed to return. He may well be released in any case. This makes the Smith pick look like a badly missed opportunity to get a player that could help the team this fall. Myles Jack, who was also still available when Dallas went on the clock, is one name mentioned as a better option. Jack also has a knee problem, but his is degenerative. It is more likely to lead to a shortened career than causing immediate problems. The Cowboys at the time made the decision to go with the long term potential of Smith instead.

Other possible picks Dallas could have taken include DT Chris Jones, DE Noah Spence, and LB Reggie Ragland, but they still believed that Smith was a better option. He has more upside than any of those players, and would probably have been in consideration for the fourth overall pick if he had not been injured at the end of his college career.

It will be at least a couple of years before we find out if Smith pays off for the Cowboys, if not longer, but the NFL is a win-now affair, and he is expected to be irrelevant in September when the real games start. If Dallas can ride their offense to the playoffs, as is hoped, then the decision to take him will look a lot better. But if there are struggles because the defense has trouble making stops, this is going to be a move that will be criticized for quite some time.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB