Yesterday we learned that Cowboys defensive end Aldon Smith had been conditionally reinstated to the NFL. This means that he will be able to start working with the team in virtual meetings, and practicing on the field whenever that begins.
There are obviously a lot of unknowns about Smith as he returns to football after such a long time away. Smith last played in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders in 2015. He participated in nine games, starting seven, but only managed 3.5 sacks. That was a far cry from the 14 sacks of 2011 and the 19.5 sacks of 2012. Of course, the off-the-field issues were starting to appear and were in full force during the years 2013-2015.
With Smith being away from the NFL for so long, it’s a given that everyone is wondering what kind of game he has left. There will be a lot of rust, there will be the physical conditioning factor, there will be his mental state, and his age. The first three are hard to measure against performance by past players, but the age category is one where we can look at history and see what that tells us.
The interesting part about being out of the game for so long is tht it cuts both ways. On the one hand, there is the rust factor where skills are diminished, muscle memory interrupted, and a variety of other things that should be a hindrance. On the other hand, the absence means he hasn’t been taking the regular NFL beating for the past four seasons. In running back parlance, maybe he has more tread on his tires than someone else his age.
Aldon Smith is 30 years old and will turn 31 just before the Cowboys third game of the season, if the season starts on time. Looking back at sack totals by players 30+ years of age at the end of a season reveals that plenty of NFL players in that age range have had very successful seasons rushing the passer. In fact, Michael Strahan had his record-setting season of 22.5 sacks when he turned 30 years old (shout out Brett Favre for helping him set the record). When Strahan was 32 he put up 18.5 sacks. 19 times since 1982, a player over 30 has put up 15+ sacks. 157 times since 1982, a player 30 or older has put up 10+ sacks.
Given that Smith is probably a “young” 30 based on sitting out for four years, there’s a decent shot he can be a productive pass rusher again at his age. Many of those players who put up double-digit sack totals after turning 30 did it in multiple years, including DeMarcus Ware.
We don’t know what kind of player Aldon Smith will be, and whether he can stay on the right side of the commissioner for any length of time. Only time will tell us that. But age shouldn’t be a huge problem for Smith.
It’s true that most of the names you see on those pass rusher lists mentioned above are elite players, many of them are in the Hall of Fame. Their talent was among the best to ever play. But we do know that at one time Smith possessed that kind of talent. Those 19.5 sacks he put up in 2012 is tied for the sixth-best single-season sack total since 1982. The list of guys ahead of him are Michael Strahan, Mark Gastineau, Jared Allen, Justin Houston, Chris Doleman, Reggie White, Aaron Donald, Lawrence Taylor, J.J. Watt, Derrick Thomas and DeMarcus Ware. That’s rarefied air.
We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves and expect a double-digit sack season from Smith, that’s a lot to ask after such a long layoff. But there is hope that he can be a presence, someone who the offense must be aware of and possibly help DeMarcus Lawrence get free a little more often.
As long as he can stay on the straight and narrow, he has the talent to be a player for the Cowboys, and not just for one season.
Below is a list of players who had 13+ sacks in a season when they turned 30 or any season after that.