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The failed experiment of Jaylon Smith and what it ended up costing the Cowboys

The Cowboys took one too many chances with Jaylon Smith.

NFL: Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The carrots are cooked.

What’s done is done.

It is what it is.

Regardless of what catchy expression you choose to describe the end of the Jaylon Smith era in Dallas, none of them will make you feel better about how this whole thing played out. The emotional rollercoaster this journey provided has been filled with surprise, delight, frustration, and then surprise again after the Cowboys up and decided to release the veteran linebacker Tuesday evening.

This whole thing started when the Cowboys shocked us all by selecting him 34th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. Smith was an elite playmaking linebacker at Notre Dame who would’ve been a lock as a top-five overall pick had it not been for the devastating knee injury he suffered in the Fiesta Bowl during his final college game. The severity of his injury was so bad he suffered nerve damage to his knee and that left a dark cloud over his future.

But this dark cloud had a silver and blue lining as the Cowboys' front office, with the endorsement of their medical team, decided to roll the dice on Smith and bring him to Dallas. Smith sat out the entire 2016 season rehabbing his knee before eventually stepping on the field in 2017.

With tempered expectations, Smith had a solid “rookie” season on the surface. Looking closer, his play was masked by the quality of two other linebackers on the team – Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens. When Smith assumed a smaller role the defense was fine; when he was asked to do more things got a little messy.

  • 75% or more snaps – Cowboys went 0-3
  • 50% or more snaps – Cowboys went 3-6
  • Less than 50% snaps – Cowboys went 6-1

Smith was granted leniency from the Cowboys fanbase for his mediocrity as we all knew he was coming back from a terrible injury and for him to be able to pick up where he left off was unrealistic.

In 2018, the perception of Smith grew immensely as he combined with then-rookie Leighton Vander Esch to form one of the top linebacker duos in the league. They were so reliable together that it pushed the once irreplaceable Sean Lee into a reserve role. The Cowboys front office had taken an enormous risk by drafting him with such a huge red-flag injury concern. But it appeared as if that risk was going to pay off so they decided to up the ante by taking another risk by signing him to a six-year, $68.4 million contract extension.

At the time, it was a debatable move only because of the position he played. Smith was trending up and having that much player control would turn out to be brilliant if Smith continued to improve. Sadly, as soon as the ink dried on that contract, his play started declining.

After two underwhelming seasons, the Cowboys opted to hit the reset button by selecting Micah Parsons twelfth overall in April. Aided by the super-fast emergence of the rookie Parsons, the Cowboys decided enough was enough with Smith.

Twice the Cowboys took a chance with Smith. The first gamble seemed like the riskiest as his long-term health was up in the air, but that risk paid off. He was a viable player on a cheap four-year, $6.49 million deal. Unfortunately, it was the second risk that proved to be the costliest as the team paid a hefty price for what little they got from him since.

Obviously, there is no sense crying over spilled milk and the Cowboys defense may ultimately experience addition by subtraction, but that doesn’t take the sting out of this huge gamble that came up considerably short.