The most essential factors in Aldon Smith's success with the Cowboys will be whether he has control over his sobriety and is able to get his body in NFL shape after nearly five years away from the league.David Helman cataloged the struggles that led to Smith leaving the NFL in order to get his life together. Smith was one of the league's premier players when things started to unravel for him.
But for those who weren't paying attention or have lost perspective, it's worth noting just how good Smith was in his first three seasons on the San Francisco 49ers. The 2011 NFL Draft would prove to feature three elite pass rushers in the top 11 picks. Von Miller was the second overall pick. Smith was drafted with the seventh pick. And J.J. Watt was taken at No. 11.
You probably don't need a reminder of Miller and Watt's accomplishments. Miller has been to eight Pro Bowls and was the Super Bowl MVP in 2015. Meanwhile, Watt has won Defensive Player of the Year three times and has been as close to an MVP candidate as any pass rusher in the past 20 years.
But in their first three seasons, neither was as skilled at getting to the quarterback as Smith. From 2011-2013 Smith recorded 42 sacks. Over that same time, Watt recorded 36.5 sacks. Miller recorded 35. Watt and Miller were utilized in more various ways than Smith and so both recorded more total tackles. But the fact remains, in his first three seasons in the league, Smith averaged an astonishing one full sack per game.
For more context, take a look at the game-changing pass rusher that has most recently helped the 49ers reach a Super Bowl. Nick Bosa ran away with the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award last year. He recorded nine sacks, 16 tackles for loss, and 25 quarterback hits. In Smith's rookie season, he recorded 14 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and 27 quarterback hits. In other words, as a rookie, Smith was a better version of what Bosa was last season.
Of course, what Smith accomplished in the past will have no impact on what he's able to accomplish in the future. But it's worth noting that off-the-field issues put a halt to a what was on pace to be an all-time great career.