NFL football is a sport and entertainment. But first and foremost, it is a multibillion dollar business, and when that kind of money is involved, things can be cold and harsh sometimes. That certainly came into play when the Dallas Cowboys surprisingly released linebacker Jaylon Smith just four weeks into the 2021 season. It was a situation set up by something good for the team. They have a lot of good players who will be returning from IR, COVID protocols, and suspension over the next three weeks and some other players currently on the 53-man roster have to go.
Based on the reporting, Smith’s release came down to on-field performance and how he fit (or didn’t) into Dan Quinn’s defense. Our David Howman and Tom Ryle take a look at who else might be vulnerable, and also what this says in general about the new approach that seems to be evident in Dallas.
Tom: Nothing like a quiet week for the Cowboys, huh? The news about Smith really stirred up a hornet’s nest of sometimes emotional reactions. Emotion is not a valid reason for making roster decisions, however. While there are some arguments to be made that it should have come earlier, there are also several reasons why the team had to wait. Just to name a few:
- With his salary becoming guaranteed after his surgery during the offseason, there was no salary cap benefit in releasing him earlier.
- They had to find out how Micah Parsons and Keanu Neal would work out at linebacker.
- Dan Quinn brought a new defensive approach, but they had to see if Smith was going to be a good fit or not, which could only happen after a few games were played.
- The rash of injuries and COVID situations left them short-handed for the first few games.
Once those things were sorted out, however, it is actually very encouraging to see the team getting hard-nosed about the roster. In the past, there has been an apparent lean toward favoring higher-paid players in roster decisions, as well as some attachment to “great stories” like Smith’s. That may now be a thing of the past. If you want to have the best team possible, it is the only way to go.
Now they have more decisions coming, and they have to figure out who gets the bad news.
David: After the initial shock of the Smith move wore off, I found myself wondering which player on this team was now the least favorite among fans. Connor Williams gets a lot of criticism, and the kicker will always draw ire when he misses kicks, but Anthony Brown seems like the answer right now. It’s a bit unfair to Brown, because he hasn’t been nearly as atrocious as the discourse has suggested, but he’s a clear weak link.
Brown’s year got off on a bad foot against Antonio Brown and Mike Williams, and it’s been perpetuated by the inevitable comparisons to Trevon Diggs. Brown easily had his best game of the year against the Panthers, and even then he gave up some big plays. The issue until now has been a lack of viable replacements for him. But Kelvin Joseph is eligible to be reactivated from the injured reserve and was spotted in practice on Wednesday. Nahshon Wright has been a valuable special teamer and could get a shot, too. The Cowboys missed out on Stephon Gilmore, who was ultimately traded to the Panthers, but there are still options for Dallas to upgrade over their biggest weakness on defense after this latest move.
Tom Ryle and Roy White discussed a lot of these ideas in the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss any of our episodes!
Tom: That is certainly a name to keep an eye on, and Joseph could push this decision. But if we are just talking about weak links, I have to look disapprovingly at one Greg Zuerlein. John Fassel’s hand-picked placekicker has been what can only be described as unreliable. He boomed the game winner against the Los Angeles Chargers, but he has missed field goals and extra points already the year, a trend that goes back to 2020. His poor performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers arguably is what kept the Cowboys from being 4-0.
It is time for the team to bring in some free agent kickers to try out. One familiar name that is available is Kai Forbath, who was brought in to replace Brett Maher in 2019. All Forbath did was hit every kick he attempted over the three games he played. He has since had an injury issue, but that is what tryouts are made for. If he, or any other available kicker, comes in and looks to be more reliable in the short to mid range, Dallas needs to really think about pulling that particular trigger. Zuerlein’s forte is making those long-distance kicks. But this year’s edition of the Cowboys increasingly seems built to avoid relying on those, the Chargers game notwithstanding.
If the way the team made the call on Smith is any indication, it is absolutely time to try and find a better option at placekicker.
David: Zuerlein was pretty bad in Week 1, but that’s to be expected after his injury and no real kicking during the offseason. He’s been perfect on his field goals since then and missed just one extra point, so it seems like he’s on a positive upward trend to me. That Dallas brought in Lirim Hajrullahu for a week indicates to me that they’re monitoring it, but Zuerlein hasn’t been bad enough to prompt a move.
Another Cowboy who has been struggling but is making improvements, at least to me, is center Tyler Biadasz. He’s definitely been the weak link on the offensive line, even with Terence Steele starting at right tackle the last three weeks. He’s struggled in pass protection, and was unlucky in going against Vita Vea, Javon Hargrave, and Derrick Brown to start the year. But Biadasz has been getting better; for instance, he didn’t allow a single pressure against Carolina, and currently ranks seventh among centers in run block win rate. It’s important to remember that Biadasz is still basically a rookie, too. He didn’t have a proper offseason last year, and has just eight starts to his name so far. He needs to get better, but it’s early and he does look to be on the upswing.
Tom: The lack of any viable option to replace him insures that Biadasz will be the center as long as he’s healthy, and I agree he is improving. The eventual roster moves will have a lot more impact on more marginal players. One that is really in danger of being released is Azur Kamara. With Chauncey Golston off to a very good start and the return of DeMarcus Lawrence on the horizon, his value as a pass rusher is not enough. It seems a foregone conclusion that Kamara’s fairy tale time on the roster is coming to a close. He seems certain to at least get signed to the practice squad, and may even get an offer to join a needy team. His NFL journey should continue in some form, but he is clearly one player who is living on a bubble.
His release will surprise basically no one, nor will some of the other candidates such as WR Malik Turner or CB Maurice Canady. That shows just how much better this roster might get as more players are brought back. That is a good thing.
David: To build on that point, all of the names you just mentioned have been contributing on special teams when not playing on offense or defense. So it’s not like they’re devoid of any value to the team, even if they’re likely some of the first names to come up when a roster spot is needed. When we think about Smith, however, he didn’t offer any special teams snaps, which made him the odd man out once his defensive snaps started declining. It’s a comforting feeling to know that these Cowboys are committed to getting value out of their players and aren’t going to be sentimental about players if they don’t see the value anymore.