The Cowboys took a chance on Aldon Smith in April, when they signed the pass rusher to a one-year contract conditional upon his reinstatement to the league.
The NFL, and commissioner Roger Goodell, are now agreeing to take a chance too.
Smith was reinstated Wednesday from an indefinite substance-abuse suspension dating back to the 2015 season, a person with knowledge of the decision told USA TODAY Sports. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the ruling. His reinstatement becomes official on May 26.
Smith still has hills to climb.
The Cowboys have hedged their bets, with varying degrees of success over the last decade, on a host of pass rushers with off-field issues. Smith arrives nearly five years removed from his last NFL game, and now 10 months clean, a person close to Smith told USA TODAY Sports. The person was granted anonymity due to the sensitive nature of substance-abuse allegations.
Smith’s 2020 deal includes a $2 million base salary with an additional $2 million in possible incentives based on sack count, a person with knowledge of the deal told USA TODAY Sports, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose terms of the deal. He’ll fight for an opening starting spot at right defensive end, where Robert Quinn tallied 11 1/2 sacks last season before signing a megadeal with the Chicago Bears.
Smith rejoins the Cowboys as they install a new defense under first-year head coach Mike McCarthy, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. Like his teammates, he’ll need to get up to speed. But unlike some returning Cowboys, Smith brings with him a history with this coaching staff.
Smith played four seasons for Tomsula in San Francisco. After the 49ers drafted him seventh overall in the 2011 draft, he amassed 44 sacks for the franchise. No player in NFL history has collected more sacks in his first two seasons than Smith did with 33 1/2. Tomsula and the Cowboys will hope Smith, who turns 31 in September, can recapture some of that explosiveness despite a lengthy hiatus away from the sport. A chance meeting with McCarthy in December, before McCarthy was hired, helped him win the Cowboys over.
McCarthy was visiting his daughter in December at Jay Glazer’s Los Angeles gym, Unbreakable Performance Center, when Glazer introduced McCarthy and Smith. Weeks later, the Cowboys hired McCarthy to succeed Jason Garrett. McCarthy’s conversation with Smith and Tomsula’s seasons of coaching him paired well with owner Jerry Jones’ willingness to take risks on players.
“It’s always important everybody look eye to eye,” Jones said of McCarthy’s meeting, “and see where we are with our conscience.”
McCarthy said Smith’s path to recovery, which has included participating in Glazer’s program for veterans and ex-NFL players battling mental health challenges, impressed hm.
“He’s really prepared himself for this next opportunity,” McCarthy said. “Always admired him from afar, competing against him in the old days a few years back.
“Very impressive young man. Looking forward to having him.”
Smith last played an NFL game in November 2015, when he was last suspended for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. He was eligible to apply for reinstatement after a year away. The league factors in criminal activity, arrests and convictions in determining whether a player merits reinstatement. Smith’s off-field issues also have included arrests on suspicions of domestic violence (he later pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges in the case), a hit-and-run and DUI.
Players reinstated from suspension are subject to league requirements including a clinical treatment plan, according to a copy of the league’s 2020 policy obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
Smith posted to Instagram last month when the Cowboys signed him.
“There is beauty in the struggle,” Smith wrote in his Instagram post. “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 toward becoming a better man.”
Now, he’ll be taking those strides with the Cowboys.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein
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