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After sitting out of football for nearly five years, it doesn’t appear that Aldon Smith has lost a step in his NFL return. Smith hasn’t even finished a full week of padded practices with the Cowboys yet, but everyone in Dallas is already raving about his ability on the field.  

Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy has been thoroughly impressed with the pass-rusher, who hasn’t played in the NFL since he was with the Raiders in November 2015. 

“I would say that if you walked away from practice you’d say, ‘Hey, who the hell was No. 58?‘” McCarthy said, via The Dallas Morning News. “That’s my thought when we walked out on the field for the first time. He looks good. I think his process back has been not a gradual one, but he’s hitting all the targets. You can see his power and his length is extraordinary. I’ve very, very happy with where Aldon is right now. You’ve got so much new around him — not only hasn’t he played, but he’s done a great job in training and preparing for this opportunity. But he’s playing in a new defense.”

Dak Prescott might be Smith’s biggest hype-man. After watching Smith in practice over the past few days, the Cowboys quarterback came away impressed with the former top-10 draft pick, who was selected seventh overall by the 49ers in 2011.  

“He’s a monster. Damn sure doesn’t look like he hasn’t played in five years,” Prescott said. “He’s going to make all of us better. A great player.”

Of course, the fact of the matter is that Smith has been out of football for the past five years, and a big reason for that is because he hasn’t been able to stay out of trouble. After a promising start to his NFL career in San Francisco, where he racked up 42 sacks in his first three seasons — the third-highest total in NFL history for a player’s first three years — Smith’s career began to fall apart due to legal issues. 

The pass-rusher was suspended nine games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse and personal conduct policy during the 2014 season and was later released by the 49ers in August 2015 after he received his third DUI. Smith then signed with the Raiders prior to the start of the 2015 season, but he didn’t last long on the field, getting hit with a suspension in November 2015. Over the next three years, Smith was out of football due to multiple suspensions, and the Raiders eventually gave up on him in March 2018 when they released him following another legal incident. 

The Cowboys decided to give Smith a chance at an NFL return in April when they signed him to a one-year deal. Due to the fact that he’s had some serious trouble staying on the field, the Cowboys gave him a low-risk contract that will only pay Smith $440,000 if he gets cut before the season starts. If Smith makes the final roster, he’ll earn another $910,000 in base salary plus $40,625 for every game that he’s active ($650,000 for all 16 games). Smith also has some sack incentives in his contract, which will pay him up to $2 million; he’ll get the full $2 million if he reaches 14 sacks, but it’s not an all-or-nothing incentive. Smith could also earn $500,000 for eight sacks, $1 million for 10 or $1.5 million for 12. 

It might seem like a long shot for Smith to hit that 14-sack threshold after five years away from football, but the way McCarthy has been talking about it, it actually seems possible. 

“He’s playing with new teammates. The communication, the language is new,” McCarthy said. “So, I think for that, I really want to give our staff and our players a ton of credit for what we’ve accomplished in the virtual meetings because it definitely carried over to our time together here in pre-training camp and training camp. Aldon is off to a very good start. He’s impressive. Still very impressive.”

Although the Cowboys have already lost one key defensive player for the season in Gerald McCoy, the Cowboys did add multiple defensive players in free agency like Smith, Dontari Poe and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who could all make a big difference on that side of the ball this year. 

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