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Jaylon Smith, the Dallas Cowboys and fans all win with the linebacker’s contract extension

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Let’s break down Jaylon Smith’s new contract.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Had anyone said three weeks ago that on Tuesday the Cowboys would announce a major, long-term extension of one of their core group of young players, it’s highly unlikely many would have expected the player to be Jaylon Smith. Instead, most would would have assumed it would be Dak Prescott or maybe Amari Cooper or even Ezekiel Elliott to be the focus of the announcement.

Dallas Cowboys fans should be applauding the Jaylon Smith extension. The reasons for approval are many:

  1. The Cowboys are officially rewarded for taking a chance with the fifth pick of the second round of the 2016 NFL draft.
  2. A core foundational player is wrapped up for the next seven(!) years.
  3. Jaylon Smith, the individual, gets rewarded after years of hard work returning from a devastating injury that happened at the worst possible time in terms of a professional career.
  4. Smith’s story of redemption and return is a fitting and well-earned result for an extremely likable, high-character individual.

The contract

Those are all good reasons and make the decision to extend Smith two years before reaching unrestricted free agency understandable. But perhaps the best reason to applaud the signing is this is a win-win-win deal that benefits all involved: the team, the player and perhaps best of all, fans.

There’s been some confusion about the details of the contract so we’re going to break it down using numbers from spotrac.

So, the key numbers from the above table are:

  • A six year extension (2020 through 2025)
  • Seven years of team control when combining 2019 with the six-year extension
  • The line under 2020 illustrates the point where Smith could have become an unrestricted free agent had he not signed his extension
  • $35.4M in guaranteed money
  • An annual average value of ~$11.4M per year (based upon the six-year extension and excluding 2019)
  • An annual average value of ~$10M per year (when combining 2019 with the six-year extension)
  • Total potential earnings of $70M

On it’s face, this seems like an extremely team-friendly deal. After all, with an $11.4M annual average value, Smith is receiving little more than former Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens received from the Kansas City Chiefs ($9M AAV) when he signed a free agent contract following the 2017 season.

Hitchens was a solid contributor during his time in Dallas. But he was the third linebacker who was taken off the field on third downs. He never once played the number of snaps Smith played in 2018 (1,055). In fact, if we compare Smith’s numbers against other recent big-money, free-agent inside linebacker contracts, we see that Smith is better than most. Further, his contract compares very favorably to all of them.

Let’s start with inside linebackers who have signed free agent contracts in 2018 or 2019. The following shows the Approximate Value of each inside linebacker who signed a lucrative free-agent contract over the last two years:

If you’re not familiar with Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value you can read about it here. It’s not a perfect metric by any means but it gives a general sense of a player’s contribution over time. Here’s the details on the players we’re discussing:

  • C.J. Mosely is clearly the best performer here. His worst season is as good or better than every other season by every other player in this analysis. Mosely earned four Pro Bowl nods and is a four-time second-team All Pro as a Baltimore Raven. He then signed a five-year, $85M contract with the New York Jets that guarantees him $43M and provides an annual average value of $17M. Smith has not performed at the same level of Mosely so this is the type of contract a “better” player has earned.
  • Kwon Alexander is, in many ways, quite similar to Jaylon Smith. He completed four years of NFL service then signed a four-year, $54M contract with $14M guaranteed and an AAV of $13.5. Note that only once has Alexander had an AV (9) as high as Smith’s 2018 number. While he has one Pro Bowl nod he’s received no other awards. Also note that due to injuries he had an AV of only three his final season before signing his FA deal. It’s safe to say Smith is a better prospect for being the better player moving forward.
  • Jordan Hicks parlayed four fairly good but injury-riddled seasons as an Eagle into a four-year, $34M contract with the Arizona Cardinals with $17M guaranteed and an AAV of $8.5M. Hicks’ single best season exactly matches Smith’s best season in terms of AV (9). But he has missed significant time, playing in only 40 of 64 possible games and missing 13 games the last two seasons. So, a good but not great player with injury concerns. Again, it’s safe to say Smith is a significantly better prospect moving forward.
  • Hitchens, of course, is familiar to Cowboys fans. He was a consistent, good but not great performer. At no point in his career did he ever achieve an AV of 9, which was Smith’s mark in 2018.
  • Avery Williamson is not a well-known name. He compiled four solid but unspectacular years with Tennessee before signing a three-year, $22.5M contract (also with the Jets) that guarantees him $16M and averages $7.5M per year.

It’s fair to say that, right now, 32 of 32 NFL GMs would take Smith over every name on this list other than C.J. Mosely. Mosely is clearly more accomplished at this point in their respective careers. You could make the argument that, moving forward, Smith has a reasonable chance of becoming as good as Moseley. However, jumping from a 9 AV performer to a 14 AV performer is the difference between a solid starter and an All Pro-type performer. Not saying Smith can’t do it; but we certainly can’t assume he’s going to make that jump. The point is Smith has a ceiling that could match Mosely’s and a floor that’s equal or better than the other names on this list.

Smith received the second highest guaranteed money commiserate with his superior performance compared to those players. However, his AAV is lower than Alexander and not much higher than most others on this list. Based on this analysis, again, it would seem Smith signed an extremely team-friendly deal.

Context matters

But that doesn’t tell the entire story. Each of the players outlined above were free agents. Smith, by contrast, was two years away from unrestricted free agency. He was already signed for 2019 at a salary cap hit of $2.1M.

In addition, he would have become a restricted free agent in 2020, meaning the Cowboys would have had the option to tender him. The estimated cost of tendering a second round pick in 2020 is $3.3M. Which means by doing nothing other than exercising their CBA-rights the Cowboys could have enjoyed Smith’s services in 2019 and 2020 for a total of $4.6M. This team-controlled future should be taken into account when looking at Smith’s new contract.

Let’s assume Smith did not sign his recent extension and instead played out his current deal and became a 2021 free agent. The following compares Smith’s actual contract to an imaginary free agent deal:

Here’s how I look at the Smith contract, in this context:

  • He was already controlled by the Cowboys for 2019 and 2020 at a cost of $4.6M.
  • He signed a seven-year deal for a total cost of $69.8M.
  • The difference between those two numbers is $65M.
  • At five years for $65M, Smith actually signed an extension worth $13M per year.

This difference between average annual cost ($10M based on the seven-year calculation; $13M based on the realities of his existing situation) has not been well-documented in my opinion.

The only assumption in the above table is that Smith would have garnered a free agent contract that averaged $16.5M. That seems reasonable, and fairly conservative, based on the numbers and analysis outlined above. No one can debate the free agent market will be more lucrative in 2021 than it was in 2019 for Mosely. It’s also possible (likely?) that by that time Smith will have compiled three consecutive seasons of Pro Bowl-caliber play. I don’t think it’s unrealistic - at all - to think he would demand $16.5M on the free agent market in 2021.

I’ve simplified any potential FA contract he might has signed by making his cap hit $16.5M for each season. The key point is this: by signing Jaylon Smith now the Cowboys have:

  • Eliminated the possibility of Smith entering free agency and demanding a market-driven contract
  • Assured that Smith will be a Cowboy for the prime of his career
  • Done so at a team-friendly rate that provides the team salary cap flexibility to sign other quality players

And it gets me to my final point. Yes, Smith signed a team-friendly deal. Even using the $13M number, he’s taking less money than he likely would have made had he played out the next two years and then entered free agency. That benefits the team.

But let’s think about where Smith is coming from. Going into the 2016 Fiesta Bowl Smith was considered a top-five draft pick. Such a draft pick would mean he would get a rookie contract similar to Ezekiel Elliott’s (which guaranteed him $24M at signing).

Smith’s injury relegated him to a second-round pick whose guarantees amounted to “only” $4.4M. In short, Smith’s injury in his final college game cost him at least $20M dollars.

I have no doubt that Smith’s experience in that situation played into his decision to sign this deal. There’s really no doubt that Smith could have earned more by playing in 2019 and 2020 and then entering free agency. Assuming good health and performance similar to 2018 he likely could have made $16.5M per year or more.

So why sign now for less? Well, put yourself in Smith’s shoes. He was once close to a guaranteed $25M deal, but got injured in his final college game. Now, he’s done everything right and performed above and beyond expectations. He’s looking like a legit All Pro caliber player moving forward. You could argue that right now he’s in the best negotiating situation of his young life.

The Cowboys are offering $35M guaranteed. It’s not as much as he could make as a free agent. But what’s key is it’s also available right now. Two years is a long time in an NFL player’s career. Truth is Smith could get injured or not play up to the level he played in 2018. If that were to happen, it’s possible when he enters free agency in 2021 he doesn’t get more guaranteed money than that $35M.

Smith basically decided to take the current guarantee rather than gambling and hoping the next two seasons go as hoped for. And as a result....everyone wins.

Smith wins because he just signed a contract that financially sets him and his family up for the rest of their lives (and based on what we’ve learned about Smith he seems exceedingly unlikely to be an NFL financial casualty after he retires). In short, Smith and his family are now financially secure for the rest of his life.

The Cowboys win because they lock up a core player for the prime of his career at a team-friendly deal. This does several things. It insures Smith is a Cowboy during his best seasons. It also allows them some salary cap flexibility to negotiate with the many other players looking for similar financial security.

But no one wins more than Cowboys fans. We can now sleep soundly knowing that Smith will be a Cowboy for the bulk of his career. As an old-timer who remembers the NFL before free agency, this is comforting.

All of us like to embrace the Cowboys who perform the best. But we also embrace those players who are “career Cowboys”. We feel more emotionally attached to players who’ve been Cowboys throughout their entire career. We also embrace those players who we like off the field and who conduct themselves in a manner that makes us proud.

Jaylon Smith is absolutely all of those things. When I heard the news of Smith’s extension I was absolutely ecstatic about it because he has earned it. He’s been a true leader ever since joining the organization. Despite being dealt a truly terrible hand, he never complained; he simply made the best of the hand he was dealt.

He’s exactly the “right kind of guy” the team has built around during the Jason Garrett era. It’s not often when a player signs a huge megabucks contract that fans can earnestly say “we win” but in this case, it’s absolutely true.

Jaylon Smith will be a Cowboy for at least the next five years; as fans we are extremely lucky to be here.