FRISCO, Texas - When Aldon Smith came into the NFL back in 2011, he instantly become a player who transcended just about any comparison. He was a totally dominant defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers, and if his career had not been interrupted, we'd likely talk about him with the sort of reverence and awe that is directed toward J.J. Watt.
That career was stopped in its tracks by a battle with alcoholism. Playing in the NFL became impossible for Smith, because surviving his addiction and coming out the other side became a singular priority. Now that Smith is back in the NFL, Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is still hesitant to throw out any comparisons.
"There's no one I could compare him to, only because I haven't coached a player who's been through what he's been through in the past four years prior to coming back," Nolan said on Monday.
When the Cowboys signed Smith in the offseason it was a shock to the entire NFL world. No one quite seemed fully aware that the former Pro Bowler was capable of returning after four years away from the game, let alone that a team with playoff aspirations would be willing to give him a shot. Once the headlines faded away and the stories had been written, a fairly conservative conclusion seemed to be reached by most: If the Cowboys could get anything positive from Smith--if they could even get him on the field without being a liability--it would be a nice little bonus for them.
Fast forward three games into the season and Smith has arguably been the best defensive player on the Cowboys. Lost in the Cowboys three down-to-the-wire games is an astonishing comeback story. Smith's four sacks leads the entire NFL and has Nolan praising his "aggressive." play.
There was always an easy way to frame the question surrounding Smith: Will he be the same player that he was more than four years ago? But perhaps that was the wrong way to frame it all along. According to Nolan, the answer is no. Smith is a different player.
"He's about 20-25 pounds heavier than he was the last time he played," Nolan said. "His game has actually changed a little bit as well, from the standpoint of the things he does well and the things he can do."
Perhaps seven years ago you might have described the perfect defensive end if you were to talk about Smith. Now, you might have to use different words. You'd describe a player with a new physical trait.
"He's always been a versatile player, but when you put on 25 pounds it changes some of that versatility," Nolan said. "It maybe takes a little bit of that versatility away from you, but then again it might help you in another area, as far as strength goes. He shows a lot of strength in his game, more strength than he showed as a younger player."
He might have lost something physically and gained something physically. But it's pretty undeniable that Smith has gained a mental strength that very few people in this world can attest to. Whether that has anything to do with his early success on the field this season, it should be applauded. a
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