Galloping towards the 2021 season, the Dallas Cowboys linebacker group remains one of the most intriguing position battles on the defensive side of the ball.
New additions Micah Parsons, a first-round pick, and Keanu Neal, a former safety, appear to have leapfrogged incumbents Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith in the pecking order. Given LVE's standing as a former first-rounder whose career seemed boundless a couple of years ago and Smith's massive contract, it's quite stunning each was so easily bypassed.
Such is life in the Not For Long league, especially when a new defensive coordinator enters the picture. Dan Quinn's defense calls for speed from the linebacker spot, which Parsons has in spades. Neal having experience in Quinn's system boosted the former safety's chances of earning a starting spot.
While we've heard positives regarding Vander Esch's development this year, he still appears to be the third linebacker. That leaves Smith on the outside looking in even in three-LB situations.
The player who signed a five-year, $63.75 million contract in 2019 has seen fewer snaps this preseason than any other linebackers and could be saddled on the bench barring an injury.
Smith has heard the criticism -- that he's too slow, misses too many plays and doesn't make any impact tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He just doesn't care to consider them.
"I mean, I don't care who you are, you're going to have criticism," Smith said, via ESPN. "Michael Jordan had criticism. LeBron James, some of the best players in the world have criticism. That's just a part of the game. But you got to control what you can control. And for me, it's just focused on my development and becoming a better player."
The above quote could appear that Smith is comparing himself to Jordan or James. Or Smith simply suggests everyone must battle through criticism, from the top of the mountain all the way down.
"Optics is out there, especially with the age of social media and things of that nature," Smith said. "Being a warrior, it's all about the only thing that matters is what you do next. Regardless of injury, where I should have been, how I played a year ago, missing the playoffs the last couple of years, none of that matters. It's about right now, so that's where my focus is."
Smith played 1,030 snaps last season, nearly 98 percent of the Cowboys total in 2020. Like the rest of the defense, he struggled mightily, missing tackles and getting burned in coverage. It was those issues that led Dallas to add potential upgrades to the position this season.
"Every circumstance is different, but you have to also adapt to how the roster shakes out and how you utilize good players," Quinn said. "And Jaylon is an excellent player, so we're certainly going to find ways to utilize him and we feel strongly about Leighton, feel strongly about KeKe [Neal], feel strongly about Micah. So let's find the things they do best and let's try to put them in those spaces as often as we can and we'll get the best version of all of them."
After suffering a knee injury in his final college game, Smith, projected as a potential top-10 pick, fell to the Cowboys in the second round. Dallas knew the linebacker would miss his rookie season but felt the talent was worth the risk. He hasn't missed a game since and shined in 2018, compiling 121 tackles and four sacks. He earned a Pro Bowl bid in 2019 after inking his big contract. It was a huge accomplishment for the linebacker to overcome the injury and reach those heights.
But the party didn't last long. Last season's struggles suggested issues that wouldn't be easily overcome.
Now the Cowboys have a potential $12.75 million backup.
If Dallas decided to cut him, the LB would count $9.8 million in dead money in 2021 and $6.8 million in 2022. On the flip side, Dallas would be on the hook for $9.2 million in injury guarantees next year if he plays this year and gets hurt.
Dallas could try to trade him to an LB-needy club, but his $7.2 million base salary guaranteed this season, and hefty salaries in future years, combined with questions about his play, would make that difficult. At the very least, the Cowboys would have to eat a chunk of his salary to move on.
Two years ago, upon Smith signing his big deal, no one would have guessed we'd be talking about Dallas moving on so quickly -- certainly, the Cowboys didn't, given the contract structure. But here we are, with the 26-year-old trying to prove his worth.
"Every year is a prove-it year because there is a lot of people who never thought I'd play again," Smith said. "I'm in a battle against myself every single day and that's what I focus on. How can I be the best me?"
At this stage, the question is whether Smith's best can crack the Cowboys linebacker rotation, or if another club might be interested in giving him another shot ahead of the 2021 season.