Jaylon Smith sparked a firestorm of heated debate this offseason when he chimed in on the NFL’s new jersey policy — teasing he was interested in trading in his No. 54 for No. 9. Of course, that didn’t go over well with loyalists of the Dallas Cowboys, who still have the No. 9 jersey tethered to memories of Tony Romo, the former four-time Pro Bowl quarterback who went from an undrafted prospect to the face of the franchise, going on to set a slew of franchise passing records in the process. It turns out Smith wasn’t teasing, though, and with the new rule now voted into effect, he’s officially put in to have his number changed, the team announced.
In addition to Smith, but in a much less controversial fashion, starting safety Donovan Wilson has changed his jersey as well, going from No. 37 to No. 6.
Sliding on the No. 9 won’t come cheap for Smith, and not by a long shot, as the rule also contains a clause that states any player wanting to change their number must first buy out the entirety of merchandise for their existing number, and that includes T-shirts and anything else that attaches Smith’s likeness to the No. 54. In all, it’ll cost him nearly half a million dollars to clear out the inventory before Smith’s new jerseys can go into production, which in and of itself raises a round of questions. And those questions relate directly to Smith’s future in Dallas, or potential lack thereof.
The team’s decision to select Micah Parsons with the 12th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft was followed up with a selection on Jabril Cox in the fourth round — Cox being a talent many graded much higher. And as far as the variable of newly installed coaches go, Parsons and Cox who Dan Quinn and Mike McCarthy brought in, whereas Leighton Vander Esch and Smith are rollovers from the Jason Garrett regime. And then there’s Keanu Neal, the defensive back turned flex player who’ll get a lot of work at the linebacker position as he attempts to carve out a longterm future for himself in Dallas.
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This all creates direct and blatant competition for both Leighton Vander Esch, who saw his fifth-year option declined by the Cowboys, and Smith; especially considering the latter is set to hit the team’s salary cap for a robust $11.8 million in 2022, after being set to count against it for $9.8 million in 2021. All things considered, including his struggles from 2020, this makes Smith a prime candidate for either a potential trade this year or the next, and while releasing him in 2021 is financially a wash as a post-June 1 release (the Cowboys would have to eat the entirety of his $9.8 million as dead money and break even with zero savings), such a move is presumably off the table.
In essence, if they can’t find a trade partner in 2021, logic dictates they’ll hold on to him for depth seeing as they can’t gain anything by cutting him loose before next offseason, after choosing to keep him onboard prior to knowing what they’d get at the position in the draft. That said, if Parsons and Cox hit the ground running and on inexpensive rookie deals, and Vander Esch remains healthy, add in promising young talent like Francis Bernard and Luke Gifford and even with the retirement of Sean Lee, the linebacker depth chart quickly becomes a game of “who’s the odd man out?”.
Smith is desperately trying to make sure it’s not him, and he hopes returning to the No. 9 he once wore when he became a top 10 talent at Notre Dame will power him up. The reason he chose No. 54 — previously worn by greats like Randy White and Chuck Howley — was because five plus four equals nine. He can do away with that math now, while crossing his fingers that he didn’t just pay half a million dollars for a new Cowboys jersey he may find himself returning in the months/year to come.
The Pro Bowler definitely has the potential to change games, but time is quickly running out for him to prove it in Dallas.