FRISCO, Texas – Last week in Oxnard, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones hinted that a player not named Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper or Ezekiel Elliott could be the first Cowboys starter to sign a new deal this summer.
“What may surprise you is we may come up with one that you haven’t been asking about,” Jones said.
Now we know.
The Cowboys announced a five-year extension with Jaylon Smith -- a triumph for the talented middle linebacker who, just three years ago, suffered a career-threatening knee injury in his final college game at Notre Dame.
The deal is worth $64 million and includes $35.5 million in guaranteed money, Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones said.
The dominant camp storyline has been the ongoing contract talks with Prescott, Cooper and Elliott, the NFL rushing champ who continues to train away from the team while he seeks a new deal.
Tuesday, Jerry Jones wanted to shift the focus to Smith: his perseverance, his redemption, and ultimately his reward.
“This is a contract story,” Jones said. “This has it all. It has overcoming, it has talent, it has rewarding of ambition, it has the beginning of what ambition will get you in the future.”
Once considered a top-five lock in the 2016 NFL Draft, Smith dropped to the second round where the Cowboys selected him 34th overall. Team physician Dr. Dan Cooper had performed Smith’s knee surgery, and the club felt confident he could make a full recovery from an ACL tear and peroneal nerve damage.
He did. After spending his rookie season rehabbing diligently with the medical and athletic training staff, Smith appeared in all 16 games in 2017, making six starts for an injured Sean Lee while wearing a foot brace to support football movements.
Last season, Smith made significant strides restoring his pre-injury explosiveness as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker. He started all 16 games at middle linebacker and finished second on the team in tackles (150) behind only Leighton Vander Esch (176), along with 4 sacks and 13 quarterback pressures.
At one point during Tuesday’s press conference, Smith turned to Jerry and Stephen and said, “You took a risk, a $4.5 million risk, had I never been able to play again.
"So me understanding that, it was my duty for them to get the return on their investment. They’ve been able to do that. And now I’m fortunate enough to really be a Cowboy for life is what I want. I’m thankful to be here, for sure.”
The Cowboys are still optimistic about getting deals done with the aforementioned three Pro Bowlers. But the first in the door is Smith.
His attitude, more than on-the-field performance, is what first impressed Jerry Jones. Now his true potential is showing – and the contract is validation.
“He has never complained,” Jones said. “He has never wavered, never missed a workout, and he’s never quit. Not one time. He is admired by his teammates. He is admired by the people he competes against. His story is one that I would have done anything to be sure that it could be a Dallas Cowboys story.”
For many years to come.