Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys agree to contract extension with a budding star. But it’s not Zeke or Dak

The Dallas Cowboys have agreed on a long-term extension with one of their young stars.

But it’s not quarterback Dak Prescott, wide receiver Amari Cooper or holdout running back Ezekiel Elliott — the ones who have been the focus of so much talk during training camp.

The Cowboys did, however, reach an agreement with linebacker Jaylon Smith, who is in the final year of his rookie deal and slated to be a restricted free agent after the 2019 season.

The new deal is worth $64 million over five years with $35.5 million guaranteed. Per vice president Stephen Jones, Smith will get $20 million over the next 16 months.

Considering Smith was under the Cowboys control for the next two seasons, Smith is now signed for the next seven years, making him a “Cowboys for life.”

“I want to be a Cowboy. I want to be a Cowboy for the rest of my life,” Smith said. “Understanding what they’ve done for me, taking a chance, taking a risk. Now they’re getting the return on their investment. It’s a beautiful thing to be a Dallas Cowboy.”

That Smith is even this position is remarkable in itself considering he suffered a tragic knee injury during the final game of his college at Notre Dame in 2016, a Fiesta Bowl matchup against Elliott and Ohio State.

He suffered an ACL tear and peroneal nerve damage.

Many thought he would never play again but the Cowboys, whose team doctor Dan Cooper was the surgeon who operated on Smith, took a chance on him in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

He didn’t get on the field as a rookie, as he battled nerve damage and drop foot during what was a red-shirt season of rehab with athletic trainer Britt Brown and film study. He played as a reserve in 2017, starting six games and recording 99 tackles.

That was before his breakout 2018 season in which he took over at middle linebacker and notched 150 tackles, four sacks, five tackles for loss, 13 quarterback pressures and two forced fumbles.

The contract extension is a victory for Smith and the Cowboys as it is final confirmation that he is all the way back to being the player he was expected to be at Notre Dame when he was a consensus All-American in 2015 and considered a top-five draft pick before the injury.

“You wanted a contract story. 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.”

“We are so proud of him,” an emotional and teary-eyed Jones said. “He has never complained. 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.”

Smith is now considered one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL. He possibly could have gotten more money if he had waited until free agency in two years.

But the Cowboys are the only team he wanted to play for, prompting Smith and his agent to initiate contract talks with Jones before the team broke training camp in Oxnard, California, last week. They got the deal done in less than a week.

“You took a risk, a $4.5 million risk, had I never been able to play again,” Smith said while turning to Jerry Jones. “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.”

Smith flew his mother, Sophia Woodson, in from their home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and promptly announced that he was retiring her from her job, which he had planned to do in the future but was able to do it now.

The Cowboys could have waited on Smith but getting a deal done now locks up a foundational piece up for the future, while also serving a bargaining chip in their negotiations with Prescott, Elliott and Cooper.

The Cowboys have long stated they wanted to reward all three players with quality deals but also leaving enough room to sign other players around them.

In this case, they got one of the other players in Smith done first.

“They’re no different than Jaylon — they want to be here, they want to be Cowboys,” vice president Stephen Jones said of Prescott, Elliott and Cooper. “I still stand by that we want to get them contracts and give them a happy moment like that and it’s still good for our team.

“What it does is it shows that you can have Jaylon sitting up here smiling big with his mother and happy about his business, and it works for the team, as well. And I still think we can do that with all the players that we have remaining out there.”

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Clarence E. Hill Jr. has covered the Dallas Cowboys as a beat writer/columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram since 1997. That includes just two playoff wins, six coaches and countless controversies from the demise of the dynasty teams of the 1990s through the rollercoaster years of the Tony Romo era until Jason Garrett’s process Cowboys.