Micah Parsons joined the Dallas Cowboys last night as the 12th-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. With Dallas having spent such significant draft capital on the talented linebacker, does this indicate that 2021 will be the last season for Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch with the Cowboys?
Linebacker was one of Dallas' top needs going into this draft because of the issues Jaylon and Leighton. We've seen Smith's play decline over the last two seasons, with 2020 showing an especially steep drop, and Vander Esch continues to battle injuries and performance issues in between.
Both veterans are at critical junctures in 2021. Vander Esch's rookie deal will expire after this season unless Dallas picks up the 5th-year option, which they must decide this Monday. Using a 1st-round pick on Parsons is a strong sign that they're not planning on it.
It makes sense; that 2022 salary would be a little over $9 million for Vander Esch and that full amount would count against the salary cap. That's a big chunk for a player whose reliability is currently so questionable.
Jaylon Smith already got his long-term contract but 2022 will offer the first real opportunity to release him and get some cap relief. Dallas can create $5 million in cap space by releasing Smith outright next offseason or $9.2 million if they make him a June-1st cut.
You may be thinking “why not keep all three for the future? There are three starting linebacker spots.” Traditionally, this is true. But in the modern NFL that third LB is really more of the “12th man” on defense as your third cornerback gets way more playing time.
Also, keep in mind that Dallas did add Keanu Neal in free agency last month. While he's been a safety with the Falcons, Neal is reportedly switching to linebacker with the Cowboys and is even listed as one on the team's official website.
So for 2021, Parsons will be rotated with Neal, Smith, and Vander Esch in some fashion as he learns the NFL ropes. We could easily see all four on the field in the base 4-3 scheme and other short-yardage packages with Neal at safety.
But you don't spend the 12th-overall pick on a rotation guy. That may be the rookie-year plan so Micah can develop and the team can assess Jaylon and Leighton for the future. However, decision time will come in the 2022 offseason.
The Cowboys could still retain Vander Esch with a new contract next year even without the 5th-year option. They could also keep Smith on his current deal if his play improves enough to justify his scheduled $11.8 million cap hit in 2022.
Micah Parsons now gives Dallas some leverage to make those decisions. But if the team was rock solid with Smith and Vander Esch going forward, they'd have spent that 1st-round pick on Rashawn Slater or perhaps even tried to move up and grab one of the cornerbacks they desperately need.
The fact they used it on Parsons tells you all need to know about the future of the Smith-Vander Esch duo in Dallas. Unless something bizarre happens this season, one of them will be looking for a new team next year.