Written by Chris Kubala
There have been a ton of off the field incidents involving the law this offseason involving NFL players. In the last month along, Bashaud Breeland of the Chiefs was arrested in South Carolina for a myriad of charges while Ed Oliver of the Bills was arrested for DWI and unlawfully carrying a gun last weekend. Washington receiver Cody Latimer was nailed on five charges, including illegal discharge of a firearm and second-degree assault while Giants corner DeAndre Baker and Seahawks corner Quinton Dunbar were both charged with multiple counts last week. That’s enough of a police blotter for the year, much less in the span of a few weeks.
There is a potential redemption story in the works and it comes to you from the land of Big D, where the Cowboys are trying again to find a reclamation project. After failing on attempts to rejuvenate the careers of Greg Hardy and Taco Charlton, among others, Jerry Jones and company have taken a flier on former first-round pick Aldon Smith, who has been out of the league for what seems like an eternity at this point. As it stands, the league conditionally reinstated Smith on Wednesday, giving him the ability to take part in the team’s offseason program, which starts next Tuesday. That means he’ll be able to interact with coaches and teammates in meetings during the virtual program since there are no on-field activities at this point in time. As a result of the reinstatement, Smith will receive $90,000 from the deal he signed last month.
Smith was the seventh overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft from Missouri and made an immediate impact as a pass rusher for the 49ers. In his rookie season, he recorded 37 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, four pass defenses, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a safety. He finished fifth in the league as a rookie by racking up 14 sacks. As good as Smith was as a rookie, he was even better in his second year in the league. Smith racked up 66 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, one pass defense and an interception. He was second in the league with 19.5 sacks, trailing only Houston’s J.J. Watt, who had 20.5 on the season. Smith earned First Team All-Pro honors and went to the Pro Bowl that season.
In 2013, Smith got off to a hot start, recording 4.5 sacks in his first three games but things started to unravel. He was in an accident on September 20 and was arrested for DWI and possession of marijuana. Smith entered rehab and missed five games. He ended up with 34 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in 11 games. The 2014 season saw a continued downward spiral for Smith as he served a nine-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies, which kept him off the field until week 11. As a result, his numbers were down as he ended up with 15 tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks. After getting his third DWI in August of 2015, his tenure with the 49ers was over as they cut him loose.
As it turned out, Smith didn’t have to go far to find a new team. He simply went across the bay to the franchise notorious for dealing with malcontents and rule breakers, the Oakland Raiders. Smith signed a one-year deal with Oakland on September 11, 2015 and stepped on the field just a couple of days later. His time with the silver and black was short-lived as the league handed down a one-year suspension on November 17, 2015 for the DWI that he had, accompanied by a hit-and-run accident, the day before the 49ers cut him loose. To date, the November 15, 2015 game that the Raiders played against the Minnesota Vikings is the last time that Smith has been on the field in a NFL game.
Smith applied for reinstatement in both 2016 and 2017 only to have the league decline to bring him back in the fold. After an alleged domestic violence incident in early 2018, the Raiders cut him loose and he’s been out of the league from that point until signing a deal with the Cowboys last month. Under the terms of the deal, Smith can earn $50,000 30 days after his reinstatement, $100,000 if he reports for training camp, $100,000 after the first two preseason games and an additional $100,000 at the end of the preseason. His base salary is $910,000 with a $40,625 bonus per game that he is on the active game-day roster. In addition, Smith could make up to $2 million in bonuses based on sack totals. He would earn $500,000 for eight sacks, $1 million for 10 sacks, $1.5 million for 12 sacks and $2 million should he hit 14 sacks.
It’s a low risk proposition for the Cowboys, who had their issues getting after the quarterback last season. Dallas was 19th in the league with 39 sacks as a team in 2019. Robert Quinn led the team with 11.5 sacks last year but he left in free agency, creating a big void in the pass rushing department. Smith has shown the ability to get after the quarterback, racking up 56 quarterback hits in his first two seasons in the league to go with his 33.5 sacks. The big question at this point isn’t so much his conditioning, but more how long it takes to knock the rust off at his stage. After all, he hasn’t been in the league in more than four years. He’ll turn 31 in September, so the potential for an erosion of skills is there in some regard. While he hasn’t had the grind of playing or practicing all that time, he also hasn’t been in game shape either. It’s going to take some time and effort to see what he can bring to the table at this point.
As Gene Hackman says at the end of The Replacements regarding the fictional Washington Sentinels replacement players: “When the replacement players for the Washington Sentinels left the stadium that day, there was no ticker tape parade, no endorsement deals for sneakers or soda pop, or breakfast cereal. Just a locker to be cleaned out, and a ride home to catch. But what they didn't know, was that their lives had been changed forever because they had been part of something great. And greatness, no matter how brief, stays with a man. Every athlete dreams of a second chance, these men lived it.
This is Smith’s chance to be Shane Falco. What he does with it remains to be seen but hopefully, he’s learned from his past mistakes.