FRISCO, Texas – As always, this is the uncertain time of the year.
Roughly one-third of NFL rosters turn over every offseason as each club looks for ways to improve its fortunes moving forward. The Cowboys are no different, as they'll face many tough decisions in the coming months.
With that in mind, we're evaluating each position on the roster and what choices face the front office in 2021. Part 4 focuses on the linebackers.
What's The Plan For Jaylon Smith?
There's no way to sugarcoat it. Jaylon Smith finished first on the Cowboys and second in the entire NFL in tackles in 2020, but the star linebacker's sagging performance was one of the central storylines of a disappointing season.
Plenty of the criticism aimed at Smith was warranted, and plenty of it wasn't. Regardless, over the course of a 6-10 season, he became the lightning rod for a defense that put up historically bad numbers en route to finishing 28th in scoring defense.
Asked about it recently on FS1's "Speak For Yourself," Smith noted that the Cowboys had a difficult time adjusting to a change of scheme under Mike Nolan.
"You've got a bunch of dominant, elite players individually," he said. "Got to be able to come together as a team and understand the scheme. Understand where we supposed to be, and then go out and execute."
It's a fair point. The Cowboys swapped Smith to weak side linebacker under Nolan's guidance, and the defense notoriously struggled with the complexities of the switch to a more multiple scheme. Smith wasn't the only one who often found himself confused or out of position – but again, he became a bit of a poster child for the unit's problems.
The question now is obvious: can the Cowboys find a way to get a better return on their investment in Smith, or should they find a way to move on?
Smith famously signed a six-year, $68 million contract extension just before the 2019 season. The deal looked like a bargain at the time, though it still made him one of the highest-paid off-ball linebackers in football.
It'd be one thing if Smith was struggling on his rookie contract, but the dip in play combined with the price of the deal have led many to wonder if the team should cut bait. The Cowboys would take a $9 million cap hit if they released him outright – or they could spread that hit over two years and save $7.2 million on the cap if they designate him a post-June 1 release.
If that's something the Cowboys are considering, they don't have too long to mull it over. Smith's 2021 salary becomes guaranteed on March 21, the fifth day of the new league year.
Of course, there has been a massive development in these discussions with the hiring of Dan Quinn to replace Nolan as defensive coordinator.
Quinn won't run the exact same defense the Cowboys used under Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard, but he is a disciple of that 4-3, Cover 3 system the Seattle Seahawks have made so famous.
It's a completely reasonable guess that Quinn's scheme could bolster Smith's level of play. It should be a more familiar system that allows Smith to think less and react more. Not to mention, if Quinn can find a top-notch defensive tackle – like he had in Grady Jarrett during his time in Atlanta – he might free his linebackers up to make more plays.
It's fair to point out that both Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are much bulkier than the linebackers Quinn sought out in Atlanta. Though, it's also worth noting that Quinn has often used larger linebackers, like Bruce Irvin, to pressure the quarterback. That's something Smith has shown an obvious aptitude for over the last few years.
The issue now for the Cowboys is making that decision. Can Smith's problems be fixed with a change back to a friendlier and more familiar scheme? Or do these problems run deeper, and do they need to be addressed with a roster move?
It's a good bet the front office already knows the answer to this question, and it's understandable if they aren't ready to outline their plans for the offseason just yet.
No matter how they handle the situation, one thing is clear: the Cowboys need more from one of their most important positions if their defense is going to improve next season.