Editor's Note:With the understanding that position battles, roster spots and other football questions take a major backseat to the bigger issues that have been presented by COVID-19, our staff will attempt to tackle 20 of the bigger questions that this team and league faces as we get ready for the 2020 season. Today, we continue the series by projecting one of the Cowboys' most intriguing prospects.
Of all the additions the Cowboys made to their roster during this strange 2020 offseason, there were bigger names and larger contracts than that of Aldon Smith. But as far as sheer curiosity goes, Smith might top the list.
The reasoning is pretty obvious. A litany of off-field issues pushed Smith out of the league on an indefinite suspension all the way back in 2015. He hasn't played a down of organized football in nearly five years. But at the peak of his powers, he was on a Hall of Fame-caliber trajectory. As a top 10 draft pick for the San Francisco 49ers, he racked up 42 sacks in his first three NFL seasons – highlighted by a 19.5-sack campaign in 2012.
Obviously, that was a long time ago. No one is quite sure of what to expect from Smith, who was formally reinstated by the NFL earlier this summer.
That raises the obvious question: just how good can Aldon Smith be for this defense?
Rob Phillips: Here's an Aldon Smith stat that blew my mind: only 11 players in NFL history have posted more sacks in one season than Smith's 19.5 sacks in 2012. He is a gifted edge rusher, plain and simple. That said, expecting him to reach that 2012 level immediately after five years away seems unfair. At full strength, I think the Cowboys are deep enough at defensive end to replace Robert Quinn's 11.5 sacks through a rotation. Tyrone Crawford's return will help. Maybe one of the younger pass rushers (Bradlee Anae, Dorance Armstrong, Joe Jackson, Jalen Jelks) can earn some snaps. And I think Smith can be a regular part of the rotation opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, even if he's not an every-down starter. Five years off is a long time, no question, but Smith will turn just 31 in September. That is still a pass rusher's prime, and he says he's fresh and motivated.
Nick Eatman: This is the biggest Wild Card on the entire team. If Aldon Smith comes in and shows the rust of someone who hasn't played in five years and has lost a few steps, then the Cowboys really haven't lost anything. They took a chance on a guy and it didn't work. Aldon Smith wouldn't be the first or last guy in that situation. However, what if he's that guy again? What if he's actually closer to the player he once was before all the off-the-field issues and he's a dominant pass rusher? If that's the case, the Cowboys are legitimate contenders in the NFC because we know the offense will be good but if they've got another really great pass rusher on the other side of D-Law, it could open up some things defensively. Odds are, it's probably going to be somewhere in between the two. Don't forget, the Cowboys lost Robert Quinn last year and his 11 sacks and it was still just an 8-8 season. So Smith is going to have to be really good just give them what they had a year ago. Personally, I think he's going to be good, but probably not at a Pro Bowl level, just a level that deserves some attention from blockers with occasional double-teams.
David Helman: I always try to be cautious when the Cowboys make one of these longshot signings. It's tantalizing, because it's a no-risk, high-reward situation. But this isn't the first time they've tried to hit the lottery by taking a chance on a pass rusher. The Robert Quinn trade worked out wonderfully, but the Greg Hardy signing and the decision to draft Randy Gregory – not so much. All of that said, it's easy to get excited when you study up on everything Smith has done to get his life in order. If he really is a "287-pound monster," as Jay Glazer described him, he could do a lot of good for this pass rush. It's unlikely he reaches the level he was on in 2012. But even if Smith can chip in and contribute 6-10 sacks, while also serving as a plus run defender, it'd go a long way. I hate myself for falling into a preseason trap, but it's hard not to get excited about Aldon's upside.