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Aldon Smith is a low-risk move that could pay off huge for the Dallas Cowboys

The NFL Draft is mere days away, with a chance for teams to target impact players at varying positions. But the Dallas Cowboys may have snagged one for relative peanuts with the signing of Aldon Smith, ending a four-year stretch in the NFL wilderness for the former first-round draft pick.

Smith last played a competitive NFL game November 15, 2015 and hasn’t even been on an NFL roster for over two years. A once-promising career was torpedoed by legal issues, substance abuse and a general self-destructive behavior. He sank so low that he reportedly spent some of that time sleeping under a car, but he's managed to bounce back from the brink and is now set upon resurrecting his once-promising NFL career.

[Editor's note: Check out PFF's 2020 Mock Draft Hub, NFL Draft Big Board and NFL Mock Draft Simulator. PFF Elite subscribers can also download the 1,100-page 2020 NFL Draft Guide.]

The 2011 draft class was one of the best the league has ever seen. Exactly half of the first round has earned at least one Pro Bowl in their NFL careers, and you can make a strong argument that two or three more should have. Smith was the seventh player selected in that draft, ahead of future superstars like J.J. Watt, Cameron Jordan and Tyron Smith. It wasn’t until this past season that Nick Bosa broke his rookie record for total pressures (64). Smith posted a PFF pass-rushing grade of 90.3 and had 189 total pressures — a top five mark league-wide — over his first three seasons in the NFL. There was a significant stretch of time where a sizable minority of people believed Smith, not Von Miller, was set to become the best edge rusher in that draft class, but his career quickly went off the rails.

2011 Edge Rusher Grades:
Rank Player PFF Grade Total Pressures
1 Aldon Smith 90.5 64
2 Von Miller 90.3 60
3 John Abraham 90.2 54
4 Terrell Suggs 87.8 59
5 DeMarcus Ware 86.8 72

There’s virtually no precedent for what this long of an absence from the game does to somebody’s ability to play at a high level. On one hand, if rust is a thing, it’s going to take weeks' worth of sand-blasting to get anywhere near bare metal again. On the other hand, he hasn’t taken anything like the wear and tear other players from his draft class have. Whether it’s Watt, Tyron Smith, A.J. Green, Cam Newton, Anthony Castonzo or several others, injuries have begun to take a real toll on some of the best players from that draft.Over those first three seasons, only Jared Allen had more sacks than Aldon Smith, and Smith had a higher pass-rush win rate due to fewer opportunities rushing the passer. He formed a fearsome duo with Justin Smith in San Francisco’s defensive front, and the two rushing in combination were almost unstoppable. Justin was often able to lead off on a stunt and get away with grabbing the second man just enough to spring Aldon completely unblocked, whereupon he was a real menace to offenses. 

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