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Dallas Cowboys release LB Jaylon Smith, the team’s second-round draft pick in 2016 – USA TODAY

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Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith was contributing.

Twice he started.

And the sixth-year pro had played more than 75% of the defensive snaps in the Cowboys’ wins over the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Chargers.

But Tuesday night, the Cowboys released Smith, a person with knowledge of the move confirmed to USA TODAY Sports. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not publicly authorized to disclose the decision.

Smith’s contract with the Cowboys ran through 2025. His 2021 salary of $7.2 million was already fully guaranteed.

But perhaps more relevant: Any injury to Smith would have triggered a guarantee on his 2022 salary worth $9.2 million, according to multiple reports, including cap tracker Spotrac. Smith has not missed a game since 2016.

This season, Smith had played 56% of defensive snaps, the most of any full-time Cowboys linebacker. He had notched 18 tackles in that stretch.

The Cowboys linebacking corps was their deepest position group, save arguably wide receiver. Dallas spent its 2018 first-round draft selection on Leighton Vander Esch, and this year drafted Micah Parsons at No. 12 overall. Parsons has rotated between linebacker and defensive line due to injuries along the line. He has consistently wrecked plays from each alignment, racing to 17 tackles (three for loss), 2.5 sacks, two pass deflections and seven quarterback hits in the first four games of his career.

Add in free-agent signing Keanu Neal, fourth-round rookie Jabril Cox and special-teams cog Luke Gifford, and the Cowboys felt their stable was deep. Neal and Parsons opened the season as the Cowboys’ starting linebackers. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said at the time that he expected Smith and Vander Esch to still contribute meaningfully.

“This is early,” Quinn said Sept. 13. “We’re certainly expecting those guys to play a lot. In some games, they’ll play a ton. In some games, it will be more balanced. I feel like we have four excellent linebackers. It’s up to us to use them the best we can and all the ways that we will.

“I’d expect games to be different as the season goes on.”

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Smith and Vander Esch started the following week with Parsons playing off the edge, Quinn lauding his veterans as “consistent” leaders who brought energy and commitment. Smith maintained 86% of snaps in a Week 3 blowout victory over the Eagles, then 40% Sunday against the Panthers.

Even so, criticism had built over time.

Smith’s 2018 season with a then-rookie Vander Esch was productive, Smith’s 2019 production earning him Pro Bowl honors. But in 2020, with Smith as the de facto defensive quarterback, Dallas’ defense reached historic worsts including allowing 158.8 rushing yards per game. Missed assignments, mental errors and even questions about effort abounded. Smith said he was not bothered by criticism.

“Michael Jordan had criticism. LeBron James,” Smith said in August. “Some of the best player in the world have criticism. That’s just a part of the game. 

“You got to control what you can control. And for me, it’s just focused on my development and becoming a better player.” 

The Cowboys fired defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in January, replacing him with former Falcons coach Dan Quinn. Quinn has quickly breathed life and cohesion into the unit, retooling both its personnel and its culture. The Cowboys continue to allow deep balls, but their run defense has drastically improved. Dallas’ 81 rushing yards per game allowed ranks sixth, its 24.3 points per game 16th. Young players have exceeded expectations, including 2021 draft selections in Parsons, defensive end Chauncey Golston and defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa.

Dan Quinn said Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith has been “excellent” to coach. Likely to be featured differently than in previous years. They communicate openly about that. Dan: “Someone I definitely lean on for insight of where we are, how we’re doing, what’s been too much, not enough.”

— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) August 19, 2021

The defensive line depth was sufficient to return Parsons from a two-game stint at defensive end, even before the return of top end DeMarcus Lawrence, who’s sidelined six to eight weeks with a fractured foot. Parsons started Sunday at linebacker beside Vander Esch. Neal rejoins the group this week after missing two games due to a COVID-19 bout. He was not fully vaccinated.

The Cowboys took a chance on Smith in the 2016 draft after he suffered a gruesome knee injury, with nerve damage, in his final game for Notre Dame. He essentially redshirted his 2016 rookie year before ramping up on the field in 2017. Smith started every game from 2018-20, leading the Cowboys in tackles each of the last two seasons. But he sometimes struggled to move fluidly and contain plays.

So the pronouncement he made in 2019 when signing his extension will not materialize.

“I want to be a Cowboy for life,” Smith said at the signing announcement. “Wanting to be a part of the most prestigious brand in the world. and I’m a team guy as well. I’m a leader.

“Eventually, I’m going to be a captain for the Dallas Cowboys. I know it and feel it.”

The Cowboys did appoint Smith a game captain on Sunday ahead of their 36-28 win over the Carolina Panthers.

Two days later, he was released.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

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