Faced with the prospect of franchise-tagging Dak Prescott for a second straight year, and doing so at a $37.7MM rate, the Cowboys are in a crucial stretch now that the window for applying tags is open. The team currently has less than $20MM in cap space.
While restructures will surely commence, the Cowboys do not intend to release Jaylon Smith to create additional cap space, according to Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Shedding the linebacker’s contract would call for less than $1MM saved — in a non-post-June 1 cut scenario — against a $9MM dead-money hit. But if the Cowboys were to designate Smith as a post-June 1 release, they could save $7.2MM this year.
Dallas included Smith in its spree of 2019 extensions, re-upping the linebacker on a five-year, $63.75MM deal. Despite entering the NFL after a severe injury that caused him to miss his 2016 rookie season, Smith became a three-down linebacker with Dallas. Pro Football Focus graded the Notre Dame product as the Cowboys’ top off-ball ‘backer last season, slotting him 45th overall. That ranking provides a partial summary of one of the worst defenses in Cowboys history, and changes should be expected now that Dan Quinn is in charge. Smith and Quinn have already spoken since the former Falcons HC took the Cowboys DC job, per Hill.
Smith led the Cowboys with 154 tackles last season and totaled 142 in 2019, doing so as Leighton Vander Esch battled injuries in both seasons. The Cowboys have Vander Esch signed through 2021. While they can pick up Vander Esch’s fifth-year option by May to lock him down through 2022, the injuries Smith’s three-down linebacker mate has suffered cloud his future compared to where his stock resided after a standout rookie year. Drafted two years apart, Smith and Vander Esch are both 25.
The Cowboys, who have Smith signed all the way through the 2025 season, have until March 9 to tag Prescott. With no other quarterbacks expected to be tagged, Prescott’s tag could run more than $20MM higher than any other 2021 tag. Needless to say, the Cowboys are pushing to extend their quarterback before the tag window closes rather than have that $37.7MM number on their books going into free agency. The sides have been at this for two years now, but the upcoming tag deadline raises the stakes for the Cowboys to avoid the Washington-Kirk Cousins path.
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