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Cowboys 2016 draft class: What to do with each player on the final year of their rookie deal (Part 3)

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The dilemma of which players of the 2016 draft who should be retained concludes..

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Wild Card Round - Seattle Seahawks v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The 2016 draft class was huge for the Dallas Cowboys. All nine of the picks have logged snaps for team over the last few years. Over the last couple days, we’ve examined six of those nine picks (part 1 and part 2) and predicted whether or not they’ll get a second contract with the Cowboys. Today, we’ll conclude this three-part installment with the team’s top three picks of the draft.

Maliek Collins (Rd. 3, 67th overall)

Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott were the offensive playmakers that got all the headlines, but defensive tackle Maliek Collins was the next rookie who started turning heads early. He entered the 2016 season behind Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, and Cedric Thornton on the depth chart, but it didn’t take long and he was the team’s starting 3-tech, pushing Crawford outside.

Collins has dealt with a number of injuries in his short career that has caused him to miss a lot of time in training camp, but it hadn’t kept him out of game action... until this past year. He had surgery on his foot in May to repair the fifth metatarsal fracture and missed three games early in the season due to a knee injury.

What does the future hold for Collins? Well, he’s got a couple things working in his favor. He has position flex as he can play the 1-tech spot if needed. That’s not his strong suit and Antwaun Woods held down that starting position this past season, but shifting Collins to the 1-tech works well in pass rushing situations, allowing Crawford to play the 3-tech. Second, David Irving is no longer in the mix. Irving was the team’s star 3-tech DT in 2017, but he has non-football related issues going on and his days in Dallas are likely over.

Collins is a key piece to the defense, but is he worth giving a second contract? While defensive tackle is an area of concern for this team, the Cowboys have another full offseason to feel it out. With free agency and another draft, it’s possible the DT position group changes before next summer rolls around. There are some quality defensive tackles in the upcoming draft and if the team can get a talented interior lineman on a cheap rookie deal, that will change Collins’ value to the team.

Prediction: Let this play out. Re-signing is still possible, but the team can address this later.

Jaylon Smith (Rd. 2, 34th overall)

There was not a lot of enthusiasm when the team selected Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith. Some of that was because fans knew he wasn’t going to contribute right away after suffering a gruesome knee injury during his final collegiate game. And some was because there were people who felt Smith would never again see the field, let alone play at a high level in the NFL.

The Cowboys took a gamble on Smith and while they had to be patient, this gamble paid off. He was named Pro Football Focus Breakout Player of the Year for the 2018 season.

Smith has developed into one of the league’s most dominant all-around inside linebackers in just his second year. Alongside rookie sensation Leighton Vander Esch, Smith’s pass-rush prowess as an inside linebacker was unparalleled.

Among off-ball linebackers with 50 or more pass-rush snaps, his 27.8 win percentage as a pass rusher ranked first.

Coverage is often a rough area for most linebackers. Most teams accept the fact that passes will be completed into their coverage, but it’s up to the player to stop those throws from gaining large chunks or touchdowns. Smith did just that in 2018 as one of six off-ball linebackers with 500 or more coverage snaps to allow one or fewer touchdowns in coverage.

And despite any reservations about how his knee might hold up, he’s proven to be very dependable.

Maybe one of the more underrated aspects of Smith’s tremendous regular season is how reliable he was. He played 95% of possible snaps and missed just 48 snaps all season. Not to mention, he committed only one penalty on the year — he’s the quintessential inside linebacker as he showed by breaking out in 2018 when so many thought his knee injury would end his career before it started.

So what’s next for Smith? He has one year left on his rookie deal and will count $1.3 million against this year’s cap. The term “team-friendly” deal is about as realistic as Sasquatch as players and their agents look to max out one’s financial compensation, but if there is ever a time where it might happen - Smith falls into that group. Let’s do the math, the Cowboys are the team that took a chance on him in a draft selection that was filled with emotion. Immediately, that put $3 million in his pocket when his financial security was up in the air. Smith remembers that. He also knows the culture in Dallas is something he embraces and genuinely appreciates. This kid is not going to want to leave Dallas.

While the Cowboys may appear cheap in when it comes to contracts, they reward those who come across unfortunate circumstances through no fault of their own. La’el Collins is a perfect example. He went undrafted after he was interviewed by the Louisiana state police regarding the shooting death of his ex-girlfriend. The Cowboys signed him as an UDFA, but guaranteed his entire three-year contract. Then, after two years, they gave him an extension that was worth an additional $15 million. The front office could have just rode out his contract and kept him another year as he would have been a restricted free agent, but they didn’t. They rewarded him and got what they believed was a good price for his services over the next three seasons.

The Cowboys could do something similar with Smith. He could get some new money up front as the two sides work out a deal that is fair for both parties. If Smith builds on another strong year, it could end up saving Dallas some big money. If Smith is overshadowed by the up-and-coming Vander Esch, it could end up lowering his value when he hits the free agent market.

Prediction: Cowboys give him an extension this offseason.

Ezekiel Elliott (Rd. 1, 4th overall)

The Cowboys have a handful of stars who will be getting huge second contracts real soon. DeMarcus Lawrence, who was drafted two years before the 2016 guys, has already played through his rookie deal as well as one-year under the franchise tag price. He’ll be priority number one. And other stars drafted before Zeke will be addressed as well (Amari Cooper, possibly Byron Jones).

While Elliott is in the final year of his deal, that doesn’t mean an extension this offseason is a foregone conclusion. Elliott is the team’s first-round pick from this class which means he comes with a fifth-year option. Expect the team to exercise that option as they’ve done with every first-round pick in recent years. The last draft pick to not have his option picked up was Morris Claiborne, who was selected in the 2012 NFL Draft. This will buy the team some extra time negotiating Elliott’s second contract.

There are some who aren’t into investing so much draft capital in the running back position, but it should be clear that the Cowboys front office doesn’t subscribe to that way of thinking. They didn’t take him fourth overall in the draft just as a rental. Elliott is just 23 years old and he’s already lead the league in rushing in two of his first three seasons. The Cowboys are keeping him, it’s just a matter of when and for how much. It’s possible they get an early jump on getting a deal done if they feel they can get a better rate, but there’s no reason to rush it.

Prediction: Exercise fifth-year option for 2020, but extend him next summer.

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