Aldon Smith to the Cowboys: How it happened and what the former All-Pro has to say about signing with Dallas

The news may have arrived on April 1, but it was far from a joke. Aldon Smith, the once-dominant but oft-troubled former NFL pass rusher is heading to the Dallas Cowboys, on a one-year deal that will pay him $2 million in base salary with another $2 million pegged as incentives — sources confirm to CBS Sports. What this contract constitutes is another, and possibly final, chance for Smith to resume and continue his career in the NFL, but it’s teeming with far more hope than expectation. The front office knows what it’s up against with Smith, and they’re not ready to throw a substantial commitment his way just yet (if ever).

And given the salary cap space the Cowboys have now and in the future, if Smith doesn’t work out, the financial hit is the equivalent of nickels in between the sofa cushions. For perspective, Smith will earn only $100,000 more in base salary than punter Chris Jones, but has the potential to do real damage to opposing offenses if he’s truly on solid footing mentally and in football condition. After all, as it pertains to the latter, he’s not played a single snap in the NFL since the 2015 season — serving an indefinite suspension since that point. 

He’s expected to be reinstated in 2020 by commissioner Roger Goodell, a separate source tells CBS Sports, which is one reason the Cowboys felt comfortable rolling the dice. 

So, how did we get to the point where a player who’s been absent for four seasons due to an NFL ban suddenly get to suit up for Jerry Jones? Well, it’s because while Jones gave the final green light, it wasn’t him pounding the table for the signing. That fist belonged to newly-hired defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, with the blessing of head coach Mike McCarthy, I’m told.

Tomsula was the defensive line coach for the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, when the team selected Smith with the seventh-overall pick, and the two immediately hit it off — leading to Smith landing PFWA Defensive Rookie of the Year honors after delivering 14 sacks, 27 quarterback hits, four pass break ups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 16 games played with zero starts. His first two seasons under Tomsula’s tutelage saw him rack up 19.5 more sacks in his second year, along with a career-best 66 combined tackles, three forced fumbles, and an interception en route to being named a First-Team All Pro and Pro Bowler.

His off-the-field troubles at the NFL level began to surface in Year 3 and he was out of San Francisco following the 2014 season, but Tomsula could never forget the player who racked up 44 sacks (along with all other mentioned production) in only 50 games played with just 30 starts. As Tomsula works with McCarthy and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan on revamping the defensive line for 2020, those flashbacks were good enough to warrant shaking the table to get Smith in Dallas.

And now, having consistently battled alcohol addiction for years, he must show and prove he’s of sound mind and body. 

“There is beauty in the struggle,” Smith wrote after the signing, via social media. “Life will always present us with tests. I’ve learned how to take a different perspective on the adversities of life. Instead of looking at life as a victim, I have embraced the journey as God has planned it, making exponential strides towards becoming a better man.”

The 30-year-old wants nothing more than to now prove Tomsula right.

“Life is good,” he said. “I’m thankful. I’m blessed. I’m a Cowboy.”

Smith joins a defensive front that lost Robert Quinn and Maliek Collins to free agency but added All-Pro interior lineman Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe — the latter’s deal currently pending a passed physical, sources say — and the expectation remains Randy Gregory will himself return from an indefinite suspension in 2020. Gregory told CBS Sports he’ll not only “be back” this coming season, but notes it’s “different” because this time “it’ll be for good,” which makes for two high-ceiling edge rushers needing Goodell’s blessing to take the field. If granted as expected, the combined base pay for both Gregory and Smith in 2020 will amount to only $2.825 million — roughly $500,000 more than what Joe Looney will earn — but both are capable of posting an individual double-digit sack tally.

How’s that for value. And with the return of Tyrone Crawford from injury, in a season that will likely see him moved to the right defensive end (RDE) “full-time,” the Cowboys are piecing together a defensive line that has the makings of being special. Of course, that value statement is only relevant if all goes according to plan for the Cowboys, which is to be determined. 

For while they’ve always had the inside track on Gregory and while the landscape change surrounding the use of marijuana aids Gregory in his bid to return and remain in the NFL, the team is mostly leaning on the word of Tomsula, Smith and Smith’s support system that he’ll stay between the lines going forward. If reinstated, like Gregory, it will be conditional and he’ll be held to the terms of his previous punishment, which is to say another failed test would put him back in line for another indefinite suspension.

The promising news is Smith has apparently not failed a test in “nearly 10 months,” a source tells CBS Sports, so now it’s simply a matter of keeping the proverbial car on the road. It’s key to note this doesn’t mean he failed tests in his four-year absence prior to 10 months ago, but instead once he decided he wanted back into the NFL, he was again subjected to testing — having not failed any in nearly a year from that point forward. 

If it all pans out for Smith and the Cowboys, it’ll be quite the coup they’ve pulled and they’ll have Tomsula to thank for it. If it doesn’t, well, they’re basically paying him punter money.

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