Almost two years ago, the Cowboys took a risk when they traded for veteran defensive end Robert Quinn. That risk paid off. Quinn led the Cowboys in sacks in 2019, and his play with the Cowboys was so impressive that the Chicago Bears lured Quinn away the following offseason with a contract the Cowboys weren't in a position to match. In the wake of Quinn's departure, Dallas took an even greater risk in hopes of replacing him by signing Aldon Smith to a one-year contract.
That risk, too, has paid off, and now the Cowboys and Smith are at a crossroads.
Given the uncertainty surrounding Smith's comeback, it does feel awfully telling that team management seems to want that road to continue right here with the Cowboys.
Asked about Smith at the conclusion of the season, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones had nothing but glowing praise..
"It's inspirational to see a man like Aldon Smith have the comeback here that he had," Jones said. "He played some outstanding football for us. He certainly was more positive than not, and I think he can take this year and build on it, and we want him to build on it to the benefit of the Cowboys."
Drafted in 2011 by the 49ers, Smith was instantly one of the most dominant and feared defensive players in the NFL, seemingly on track to have the kind of career that fellow draft class member J.J. Watt would put together. But alcoholism and a shattering loss of self-identity and self-worth drove him out of the league and led to brief homelessness. When the Cowboys signed Smith in April of 2020, it was a shock to the football world. He was 30 years old and hadn't played in the NFL in four seasons.
When the shock of the signing wore off, it was clear the the addition was a calculated decision that most had tempered expectations for: The Cowboys needed a defensive end to play opposite DeMarcus Lawence with Randy Gregory's reinstatement status unknown, and they did not have the cap flexibility to sign a premier player at the position. Anything Smith could give them would help.
To many's surprise, Smith started the Cowboys' opening game against the Rams and recorded a sack, his first in five years. In Week 3 against the Seahawks, he would record three sacks. Any notions that the Cowboys would see glimpses of the old Smith had previously seemed unthinkable, but as defensive coordinator Mike Nolan pointed out in September, this was a new Aldon Smith: perhaps not quite as quick as he was when he was 22, but much bigger and much stronger.
Smith finished with five sacks on the season, just behind Lawrence's team-leading 6.5. And while Lawrence finished the season with 37 QB pressures, Smith was right behind him with 35. He played all 16 games, and when Gregroy was reinstated Smith even shifted over to play snaps at defensive tackle, a move made possible by the size and strength that he added before joining the Cowboys. Ultimately, the Cowboys once again found a counterpart to Lawrence on the defensive line.
In recent interviews, Smith alluded to wanting to build something on the foundation that the Cowboys' defense identified in the final quarter of the season, hinting at an openness to re-sign with the Cowboys and continue his second career in Dallas. Throughout the season, Smith has expressed gratitude to the Cowboys for giving him a chance when no other team was calling, so there is perhaps a degree of loyalty and deference towards the organization. That said, it was a nearly unfathomable task to come back from four years away from the NFL and potentially receive a multi-year contract, and he's earned the right to seek out his value.
Smith also stated back in November that his goal is "to prove that I'm the best defensive player in the league, if not the best player in this league." Whatever you might think about that goal, Smith certainly believes in its attainability, and the best defensive player in the league is unlikely to come at a bargain.
Jones will have a decision to make about what he believes Smith's future value to be, but it certainly feels like there is promise there.
The final say in Smith's potential Cowboy future will come from new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, as well as a soon-to-be-hired defensive line coach. But as things stand, both the Cowboys and Smith seem open to working out a deal.
Ultimately, time and numbers will determine whether Smith's tenure in Dallas will turn out to be an inspiring one-year tale or a long-term winning relationship.