Prior to this season, Aldon Smith hadn’t played in an NFL game since 2015. Now, he’s one of the few bright spots on the Dallas Cowboys’ defense.
You could be forgiven if you overlooked it this offseason when the Dallas Cowboys signed Aldon Smith to a one year deal. The signing was announced on April 1 and it’s possible that addressing an area of need with a free agent who hasn’t played since 2015 could have felt a bit like an April fool’s prank for many fans.
After a long history of legal troubles and substance abuse kept Smith off the field for five years, he’s back and through three weeks has proven himself to be the best defender on the Cowboys this season.
Aldon Smith was once one of the most feared edge rushers in the NFL while playing for the San Francisco 49ers. His 33.5 sacks are an NFL record by a player in their first two seasons. He’s also the fastest in league history to 30 sacks, something he did in just 27 games.
In Smith’s first three seasons in San Francisco, he racked up 42 sacks in 43 games. In 2012 Smith’s 19.5 sacks set a 49ers single-season record and helped power the team to Super Bowl XLVII.
Smith’s time in San Francisco ended less than ceremoniously though. Suspensions, substance abuse, and legal run-ins led to his release in August of 2015. The Oakland Raiders took a chance on him, but he played in just nine games for Oakland in that season before he has suspended yet again, this time for a year. Continued off the field issues and a failed reinstatement kept him out of football, until this season.
This past offseason though there were rumblings that Smith wanted to make his way back to the NFL after five years away. Shortly thereafter, the Cowboys scooped Smith up on a one-year deal that felt like the definition of low risk, high reward. Soon after his signing Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer praised Smith’s commitment to getting back in shape for the season and his recent sobriety.
So far this year Smith has been one of the lone bright spots on an otherwise disastrous Cowboys defense. Sure, other players such as rookie corner Trevon Diggs have flashed at times, but no one on the defensive side of the ball has played as consistently well as Smith has. During training camp, he earned early buzz, but it’s hard to imagine anyone could have predicted that he would come out of the gate this strong to start the season.
Not much has gone right for Dallas’ defense this season. As a unit, they’ve looked lost adapting to new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme. The secondary has largely acted as human turnstiles for opposing offenses, while the front seven has frequently failed to get enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Through three games they rank third in total points allowed (97) and tied for the NFL lead in passing touchdowns allowed (9), all while managing just two takeaways. Even the team’s high profile leaders like linebacker Jaylon Smith and edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence have largely failed to live up to expectations.
Smith, to his credit, has looked fantastic. His four sacks lead the Cowboys by a solid margin. After three weeks he doesn’t just lead the team in sacks, he leads the NFL. The last time Smith led the league in sacks was in Week 14 of the 2012 season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Smith’s 13 pressures rank seventh among all edge rushers in 2020. The only other Cowboys to even notch a sack so far this season have been fellow edge rusher Everson Griffen and defensive linemen Antwaun Woods who both have one.
When the Cowboys brought in new head coach Mike McCarthy, one of the under the radar hires they made was adding Jim Tomsula to coach their defensive line. Tomsula is likely best known for his single-season stint as head coach in San Francisco where he went 5-11. However, he was also Smith’s defensive line coach throughout his tenure as a 49er. While the rest of the line has yet to settle in, Smith definitely looks at home.
It’s just three games into the season and a lot can happen. Players will surely progress and regress. Adjustments will continue to be made and it’s entirely possible the Cowboys can right the ship and maximize the talent on the defensive side of the ball. One thing is clear though, and that is that Smith’s signing has been an absolute steal, and he’s been the team’s early-season defensive MVP.
Aldon Smith’s comeback and play to start the season is a remarkable story. But it’s also more than that. For a team that struggled on the defensive side of the ball, Smith has been one of the few bright spots. The Dallas Cowboys have a lot to do in order to fix their defense but having players like Smith can go a long way towards helping.