By SCHUYLER DIXON
FRISCO, Texas (AP) — When the Dallas Cowboys announced a contract extension for Jaylon Smith, it was first a celebration of the linebacker’s journey from a career-threatening knee injury in college to one of the NFL’s richest contracts at his position.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the focus to turn to holdout running back Ezekiel Elliott, or the question of deals for quarterback Dak Prescott and receiver Amari Cooper with each entering the final year of his rookie contract.
“There is less pie left,” owner Jerry Jones said. “Make no bones about it. There is less pie.”
Smith and the Cowboys agreed on a $64 million, five-year extension with $33.5 million guaranteed for the 2016 second-round pick. The average annual value of $12.8 million on the extension is among the top five for inside linebackers.
The 24-year-old essentially lost a year on his rookie contract because Smith spent his rookie season on the non-football injury list after the devastating left knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame, where was an All-American in 2015.
The deal came together in a matter of days despite all the talk of the missing Elliott, the two-time rushing champion who wants a new contract while still having two years left on the current one.
“For me it’s about being a Dallas Cowboy life,” Smith said. “Really, technically, with the tender year, the Cowboys have my rights for two more years. For us to get an extension like this, is just a testament to how much we love one another and we believe in one another as well.”
Smith started all 16 games for the Cowboys last season, when he was second on the team in tackles (150) and tackles for loss (five). He played in all 16 games, with six starts, when he made his NFL debut in 2017. He was going into the final season of his rookie contract.
Before nerve damage associated with tearing a ligament in his knee during Notre Dame’s 44-28 loss to Ohio State in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day 2016, Smith was considered a top prospect. While plenty of teams wondered if he could play again, the Cowboys took him with the 34th overall pick.
“He has never complained,” Jones said while fighting his emotions. “He has never wavered. Never missed a workout. And he’s never quit. Not one time. His story is one that I would have done anything to be sure that it could be sure that it could be a Dallas Cowboys story.”
Smith struggled in his first season, in part because the Cowboys had to rely on him more than planned because of injuries to Sean Lee. The progress was dramatic last year as the defense helped keep Dallas in contention while the offense struggled.
The Cowboys won the NFC East, beat Seattle in a wild-card game and lost to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round.
“I couldn’t lift my foot for a year and two months,” Smith said of the time after the injury. “They were able to show their true belief in me. It’s just the beginning. I received my new contract after only 22 starts. So I’ve got a bunch of starts left.”