Breaking down Jaylon Smith's contract extension, impact on Cowboys salary cap and looming deals
The cap numbers after Smith's extension don't match what the Cowboys are selling
Just three years, seven months and 14 days after undergoing extensive surgery to repair devastating damage to his knee -- suffered in the Fiesta Bowl when Notre Dame took on Ohio State in January 2016 -- Smith has overcome all odds to not only return to football, but to then become one of the most dominant linebackers in the entire NFL. He was rewarded for his undying spirit on Tuesday, when the Cowboys worth $64 million that includes $35.5 million in guaranteed money.
He'll also receive a $5 million signing bonus, and his contract structure is one that not only places him in the upper echelon of top-paid linebackers, but it is also favorable to the Cowboys' salary cap.
It breaks down as follows:
|Year||Base Salary||Signing Bonus||Option Bonus||Cap Hit||Dead Money|
|2024||$11 million||-------||$1.6 million||$12.6 million||$1.6 million|
|2025||$12.35 million||-------||-------||$12.35 million||-------|
*Fully guaranteed salary/guaranteed for injury.
For clarity, the five-year term begins following the 2020 season, considering the team was set to place a first-round tender on Smith -- who was slated to be a restricted free agent next year -- turning the overall contract into a seven-year agreement that locks him in through 2025. The first-round tender would've yielded Smith a $4.67 million salary next season, which means his $7.77 million cap hit for 2020 is really just $3.1 million more than what it would've been without a contract extension.
His original cap hit for 2019 raises by only $500,000, adding to a negative cap differential over the next two seasons of only $3.6 million -- a negligible number when weighed against what's set to be leviathan cap space -- and leaves the club with approximately $23.9 million for their remaining talks with Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott. Extending Cooper would also forward them the ability to lower his $13.9 million cap hit for 2019, and that would pour savings back into the pot to offset any deal on Prescott and/or Elliott.
And with the ability to free up nearly $100 million in 2020 cap space still very much in play, although mathematically the pie is lessened, there's still more than enough to pass around enticing slices to the three most important offensive players on the roster. The Cowboys are well-aware of this reality, with team exec Stephen Jonesfor Smith's signing, despite public negotiation tactics from both Joneses that imply the contrary.
"There is less pie left, make no bones about it," owner Jerry Jones said.
That's true, but mostly because it's kindergarten math. If someone takes a slice away, there are less slices available to others. What's lost in that comment is the context and complexity that asks, "What was the size of the slice removed?" because that's what matters more than simply seeing one grabbed. It's in that higher-level discussion of salary cap that Jones' comment loses steam, because with nearly $24 million sitting on the table and four times that amount waiting on them in a few months -- well, you get the picture.
It's in 8K Ultra HD.
It's also why Stephen Jones' response to the pie question was a simple "yes," before he realized that response hurt the team's leverage, and then joining the owner in scaling back the comment. The Joneses do remain "very" confident they'll get the other three deals done, though, and can at least enjoy landing a contract win on their star middle linebacker until then.
Smith's prorated signing bonus of $5 million is spread over the next five years, but he's still owed roughly $730,000 as a final payout of his rookie signing bonus, hence the $1.73 million tab in that category for the 2019 season. From there, he'll receive another $8 million option bonus beginning in 2020 -- also prorated over a five-year span -- that begins generating a larger salary cap hit from 2020 onward. Also, not that the Cowboys will look to do so, it bears mentioning their first real chance at an out is following 2021; that's the first year releasing Smith would yield a salary cap savings as opposed to seeing the team pummeled by dead money.
Additionally, there are de-escalators that will dock Smith a total of $500,000 for any season he doesn't participate in at least 90% of offseason workouts -- per Pro Football Talk -- giving the Cowboys a bit of recompense against the roughly $16.4 million of Smith's salary that's guaranteed for injury, should an injury crop up in the future.
In all, this is a deal that landed two seasons early and works out well for both sides, and well-deserved for Smith when considering not simply what he went through to get back on the field -- and then to have a breakout year not long after -- but also because he was a consensus top-five draft pick that fell to the second round. For perspective, safety Jalen Ramsey was selected fifth overall that year and signed a deal worth $23.36 million with $15.18 million guaranteed.
Smith, however, wound up securing a rookie contract that maxed at $6.49 million that included $4.52 million guaranteed.
For those keeping score at home, this means -- at best -- the former Notre Dame star and Dick Butkus Award winner lost $16.87 million in potential salary and $10.66 million in guaranteed money. Still, he maintained his "clear eye view," and is recovering that lost income in spades. Smith was already executing his famous "swipe" on the field after returning to football in 2017, but he can now truly enjoy doing it in a major way off the field -- with a debit card that's basically made of Teflon.
It's a win for the Cowboys. It's a win for Smith. And given his story, it's a win for football.
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