FRISCO, Texas -- As the Dallas Cowboys continue to fall in love with 2021 first-round draft pick Micah Parsons, delight in the apparent rejuvenation of Leighton Vander Esch and smile at the transition to linebacker made by Keanu Neal, there is a burning question to answer.
What happens to linebacker Jaylon Smith?
Through three preseason games, Smith has played 23 snaps. In the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 5 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Parsons swooped in for a fumble recovery, jumping on a ball that was directly in front of Smith. In the Cowboys' second preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals, Smith was slow to react to a bootleg pass to the running back, caught in never-never land for a split second and unable to catch up. And in last week's game against the Houston Texans, he struggled to disengage from blocks.
Parsons has played 43 snaps, Neal 34, Vander Esch 27. Perhaps that's a sign of things to come when the 2021 NFL regular season starts Sept. 9 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). Though that decline wasn't the plan when the Cowboys signed Smith to a six-year extension worth $68.4 million, including $35 million guaranteed in 2019, believing he would be a cornerstone of their defense for close to a decade.
Through it all, however, the Cowboys are expressing optimism regarding Smith's play.
"From the whole time, all the way back to the offseason, I said -- and I might have talked about it earlier -- I feel a difference in his speed," Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. "I just feel like he has worked so hard on that. His stride length. He is covering more ground. I saw in the [Los Angeles] Rams practice. ... I say, 'Man, the speed is on point.' He really trusts what he is doing and it allows him to play really fast."
Quinn said the preseason work for his linebackers has been on a rotation, but how each will be used in the regular season will be based on game situations, down and distance and the opposing offense.
Smith played in 97.8% of the Cowboys' defensive snaps a year ago, and in 92.2% of the snaps in 2019. As of now, Smith approaching those percentages in 2021 appears unlikely.
"Every circumstance is different, but you have to also adapt to how the roster shakes out and how you utilize good players," Quinn said. "And Jaylon is an excellent player, so we're certainly going to find ways to utilize him and we feel strongly about Leighton, feel strongly about KeKe [Neal], feel strongly about Micah. So let's find the things they do best and let's try to put them in those spaces as often as we can and we'll get the best version of all of them."
Smith, 26, has endured his share of the criticism because of the way the Dallas defense performed last season, finishing 28th in yards per game and allowing a franchise-record 473 points. He frustrated those inside and outside the organization with poorly-timed celebrations when the unit was performing badly. He raised eyebrows by switching from No. 54 to No. 9 this offseason, forking over close to $500,000 to make the switch when it would not have cost him anything to do so in 2022.
"I mean, I don't care who you are, you're going to have criticism," Smith said. "Michael Jordan had criticism. LeBron James, some of the best players in the world have criticism. That's just a part of the game. But you got to control what you can control. And for me, it's just focused on my development and becoming a better player."
Some people will view that as comparing himself to Jordan and James. Others will see it as context as to how to brush off criticism.
"Optics is out there, especially with the age of social media and things of that nature," Smith said. "Being a warrior, it's all about the only thing that matters is what you do next. Regardless of injury, where I should have been, how I played a year ago, missing the playoffs the last couple of years, none of that matters. It's about right now, so that's where my focus is."
Smith's story is one that should be retold often. Once viewed as a top-five draft pick, he suffered torn ligaments and nerve damage in his left knee in his final game at Notre Dame, the 2015 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. The Cowboys drafted him in the second round in 2016, knowing he would not play as a rookie.
Smith has not missed a game since the 2017 season, has started the Cowboys' past 48 games and was added to the Pro Bowl in 2019.
"He's been that guy every day," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. "This guy brings it every single day. He practices extremely hard. He plays the game the right way. So I can't comment on the criticisms or the why, but he's been a true professional in my time with Jaylon."
The Cowboys have looked at ways to increase Smith's versatility. He has played some strongside linebacker in addition to middle linebacker. He has rushed the passer and not just on a blitz. Special teams coordinator John Fassel mentioned Smith, Parsons, Vander Esch and Neal having to play on kick or coverage units.
"Whatever is called, I'll be ready," Smith said.
There is nothing to suggest the Cowboys are pondering a life without Smith at the moment, but they have a $16.4 million decision if they choose to move on from Smith, either with a release or a trade.
His $7.2 million base salary is guaranteed for 2021. If the Cowboys cut him, he would count $9.8 million against the cap in 2021 and $6.8 million against the cap in 2022. But his $9.2 million base salary next season is guaranteed for injury at the moment and becomes fully guaranteed next March. If Smith gets hurt this season, the Cowboys are on the hook for the $9.2 million.
Perhaps there could be a trade with a linebacker-needy team, but the Cowboys might have to eat some of the money to make it work.
Among the reasons the Cowboys did not move on from Smith this offseason was a wrist surgery, which would have prevented him from passing a physical. Dallas was also more than a month from drafting Parsons No. 12 overall, did not know how healthy Vander Esch would be and could not have predicted Neal, who was signed in March, would play so well at linebacker.
But now the Cowboys feel good about those three players, and Smith's role is undefined at best.
"Every year is a prove-it year because there is a lot of people who never thought I'd play again," Smith said. "I'm in a battle against myself every single day and that's what I focus on. How can I be the best me?"