(Editor's Note: NFL rosters change wildly from year to year. This year will be no different, as the Cowboys seek to upgrade their roster via free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft. Still, a large percentage of their roster is already in place, and they'll have plenty of work to do to improve last season's 6-10 record. In the coming weeks, the staff of DallasCowboys.com will evaluate those players who are already under contract, examining their past performance and future outlook. Today, we continue the series with linebacker Jaylon Smith.)
The Good: Judging on stats, Smith has been among the most productive linebackers in the entire league the last three seasons. His career-high 160 tackles in 2020 ranked third among all NFL players. He tied for the team lead in fumble recoveries (2) and added 1.5 sacks and 6 quarterback pressures as a situational blitzer, rushing from the WILL linebacker spot or the line of scrimmage. Smith also has been remarkably durable since returning from the career-threatening knee injury he suffered before the 2016 NFL Draft. After rehabbing with the Cowboys' athletic training staff that year, he has played in all 64 games from 2017-20, including 1,081 out of 1,105 defensive snaps last season.
The Bad: The Cowboys struggled on so many levels defensively last season, and Smith – the quarterback of the defense, handling most of the calls – obviously had a role in that. Opponents challenged the defense's communication and gap integrity with pre-snap motion and misdirection, and it was a problem for stretches throughout the season, particularly in run defense, where the Cowboys gave up the second-most yards in franchise history. A good run defense takes all 11 players, and too often the opposing offensive line reached the second level too quickly, making life difficult for the linebackers. But for Smith and the defense to make a jump forward in 2021, they'll have to be assignment-sound on a consistent basis. Smith's eight penalties also tied for most on the team last season.
Best Of 2020: Smith's best game probably lines up with the start of the defense's turnaround down the stretch: the 30-7 win at Cincinnati in Week 14. He tied a season high with 13 tackles and added a pass breakup and a fumble recovery that led to a Cowboys touchdown and 17-0 second-quarter lead. It was one of three takeaways by the defense that day and the start of a 12-takeaway stretch in the final four games that helped Dallas stay in contention for the NFC East title despite a 6-10 final record.
Contract Consideration: With a big contract comes big expectations, and Smith just completed the second year of a five-year, $64 million contract extension signed before the 2019 season.
What's Next: Given the defense's struggles and its expected scheme reboot under new coordinator Dan Quinn, there have been questions – outside The Star in Frisco, at least – about whether the team might considering parting ways with Smith for immediate salary cap relief (and what would be an accompanying hit in dead money, too). Based on the team's public comments throughout the season, that doesn't sound likely. Head coach Mike McCarthy has spoken highly of Smith's contributions, and Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones has called the 25-year-old captain a team "cornerstone" moving forward. Plus, the club has a large number of impending free agents on defense with limited cap space and only so many draft picks. Quinn's system is more similar to the scheme Smith thrived in as a middle linebacker back in 2018, his first year as a full-time starter, and might put him in better positions to pursue plays with fewer coverage situations. A healthy Leighton Vander Esch should help the dynamic at linebacker, too: he missed the better part of seven games with collarbone and ankle injuries.