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The Cowboys might have to face the fact that Jaylon Smith’s best days are behind him

The Cowboys polarizing linebacker is an incredible story, but his best days may already be behind him.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

Jaylon Smith was once believed to be a potential generational talent at linebacker coming out of Notre Dame. Unfortunately, a devastating knee injury in his final game against Ohio State threatened to rob him of his playing career altogether. Despite the concerns, the Cowboys surprised many on day two of the 2016 NFL Draft when they selected Smith at the top of the second round, fully aware he wouldn’t play for at least a calendar year.

Fears over nerve damage and “drop foot” lingered around Smith for some time, even after he eventually returned to the field in 2017. While no one could question his downhill ability, Smith seemed to struggle to change directions and move through traffic the way modern linebackers are required to. As such, Smith’s “rookie year” largely suggested the once “can’t-miss” talent would now be forever missing in action. And then the 2018 season happened.

Alongside rookie Leighton Vander Esch, Smith put forth a vastly improved “sophomore” season, helping revitalize the Cowboys linebacking corps and lead Dallas to an 11-5 record that saw the team win six straight after finding themselves on the ropes at 3-5 at the midway point. While Dallas would ultimately fall in the Divisional Round to the eventual NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams, the future of the defense appeared bright with Smith and LVE holding down the fort.

Although Smith would make his first Pro Bowl in 2019 as a replacement pick, his season hardly compared to his 2018 campaign in which he could have legitimately been considered a Pro Bowl “snub.” Smith had lobbied hard for the honor and managed to secure an achievement that seemingly signified his capability of living up to the promise he’d shown prior to the injury in the Fiesta Bowl. In truth, however, Smith’s limitations were becoming more and more glaring.

While Dallas has tried to blitz Smith more often to offset his coverage vulnerabilities, his sack numbers have declined over the past two years, from four in 2018, to 2.5 in 2019, and 1.5 in 2020. He’s not one of Dallas’ best pass rushers and, when a team knows how one-dimensional he is, it’s not hard to guess that Dallas might try to use him to bring pressure up the middle.

The most recent illustration of Smith’s immobility came in the second preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals when he was first fooled by play-action, and then slow to react in recovering. The result was an easy pitch-and-catch from McCoy to Chase Edmonds. Smith is slow on the play to the point where LVE, playing middle linebacker, actually gets to the back first for the tackle.

While it is preseason, this isn’t a rare occurrence. It happens somewhat regularly at camp as well, with media on hand making mention when Smith is either lost in coverage or allows a back or receiver to blow by him on a play.

Smith is in the second year of a five-year contract and is a cap hit of $9.8 million this season. He’s also a liability on passing downs. When Dallas committed to Smith’s salary for the year before the draft, they had little alternative given the looming question marks surrounding the linebacker position at the time.

The team had already declined to pick up LVE’s fifth-year option due to injury concerns. Keanu Neal, though talented, was going to be coming off of a severe injury and playing a new position. The 2021 NFL Draft hadn’t yet begun. The team had no choice but to remain committed to Smith with the hope that Dan Quinn could perhaps wave a magic wand and help Smith rediscover that 2018 form.

Tony Casillas and RJ Ochoa discussed Jaylon among a variety of other topics on the latest episode of The 75O on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network (Apple devices right here and Spotify users right here) so you don’t miss any of our episodes!

If these two preseason games and the first half of camp are any indications, he can’t, meaning Dallas has itself a big problem. If Dallas were to cut Smith, they would have some $16.6 million in dead cap to contend with moving forward, but if they retain Smith through this season, that figure would be a bit more manageable to spread over the course of the remaining two seasons.

Somewhat interestingly, Smith and LVE mirror another young linebacking corps in Dallas from the early 2010s, a tandem Cowboys fans were certain would be one of the best units in the league for the next several years, that being Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. Similar to Lee and Carter, the Jaylon and LVE pairing flashed early but failed to sustain its success. Lee, like Smith, had injury to blame

Now, Dallas needs to make an honest assessment of Smith’s ability and whether or not it makes sense to keep playing him over guys like Jabril Cox, who has impressed when given the opportunity thus far.

Jaylon Smith overcame tremendous odds when he came back from what some considered a career-ending injury in his final college football game. He then went on to make a Pro Bowl and get paid in the form of a six-year, $68 million extension. That’s an incredible story, but the on-field reality no longer matches a storybook ending.