Two of the heaviest hitters on the Dallas Cowboys’ 2021 salary cap are Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Linebacker Jaylon Smith. But while frustration about their performance last season abounds, the notion that one or both could be released this offseason has never been realistic. Today, that idea truly goes out the window.
Based on the language in their contracts, both Zeke and Jaylon’s base salaries for 2021 become fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year. That new year started on Wednesday with the opening of free agency, so Sunday, March 21st is that fifth day.
A couple salaries are scheduled to be locked in this weekend for Cowboys. If LB Jaylon Smith remains on roster Sunday, his $7.2M salary in 2021 becomes fully guaranteed. If RB Ezekiel Elliott remains on roster Sunday, his $12.4M salary in 2022 becomes fully guaranteed.
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) March 20, 2021
This doesn’t really move the needle much for Elliott. Even without the base salary guaranteed, Zeke’s $13.7 million cap hit for 2021 wouldn’t have been helped one bit with $24.5 million in dead money still left on the deal.
In other words, Dallas would have lost cap space if they’d cut Elliott outright. Even making him a June-1st cut wouldn’t have offered any cap relief. 2022 is the first real opportunity to do anything with Zeke’s contract.
Jaylon Smith isn’t so secure this year. While an outright release is only worth $400k to the Cowboys’ cap, making Smith a June-1st cut would create $7.2 million in cap space for 2021 and push $6.8 million in dead money to next year.
While we never love kicking dead money down the road, this is a year when it could be more sensible. The 2021 salary cap was reduced in response to lost revenues during COVID-19, but that could easily change in 2022 and beyond after the NFL’s major, new television deal.
An $7.2 million in 2021, even though it would only become available after June 1st, would still give Dallas valuable funds to pay their rookie class, make some late-offseason free agent signings, and address any other roster business.
But once the base salary becomes guaranteed today, any benefit to cutting Jaylon Smith in 2021 is gone.
I’ve never thought Jaylon would get released. Still just 25 and having already flashed star potential, Smith’s one of those guys the Cowboys are hoping will be fixed by Dan Quinn’ arrival as defensive coordinator.
Even with Keanu Neal being added and reportedly considered for a linebacker role, there are still plenty of snaps for Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and others at the position. And especially given Vander Esch’s injury history, can you really afford to lose Jaylon with LB depth already an issue?
So no, Ezekiel Elliott wasn’t getting cut in 2021 and Jaylon Smith probably wasn’t either. But after today, their contracts will make it virtually impossible,