By Jori Epstein
USA TODAY Sports
Aldon Smith hasn’t played an NFL game in 1,599 days.
That didn’t stop the Dallas Cowboys from signing the former All-Pro defensive end on Wednesday night.
Smith and Dallas agreed to terms on a one-year deal worth up to $4 million, a person with knowledge of the deal confirmed to USA TODAY Sports. The person spoke on condition on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly disclose the team’s plans. The deal includes a $2 million base salary with an additional $2 million worth of incentives based on sack count.
“Life is good,” Smith wrote in an Instagram post Wednesday night. “I’m thankful. I’m blessed. I’m a Cowboy.”
Smith, who will turn 31 in September, has shown an uncanny high ceiling for wreaking havoc on passers. He amassed 47.5 sacks and 89 quarterback hits in five seasons. His 33.5 sacks across his first two seasons in the league is an NFL record. Trailing closely are Reggie White (31), Von Miller (30) and Derrick Thomas (30).
But Smith hasn’t played a game since November 2015, when he was last suspended for violating violating the league's substance-abuse policy. To trigger any part of the deal, Smith must win his reinstatement battle to overturn his league suspension.
He has begun that process, a person with knowledge of his application told USA TODAY Sports. The person said Smith has been clean for nine months. He also has participated in a program that pairs former NFL players and combat veterans to help each other with transition challenges including mental health struggles. Fox Sports NFL insider Jay Glazer, who co-founded the Merging Vets and Players (MVP) program, tweeted that Smith has helped veterans deal with sobriety issues while “getting help himself.” Glazer said Smith hasn’t missed a session in eight months.
“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.”
The NFL updated its policy on substances of abuse with the ratification last month of its next collective bargaining agreement. Smith was eligible to apply for reinstatement after he had served a one-year suspension.
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, a hit-and-run and DUI.
There are clinical requirements for reinstatement and the league mandates players continue participation in a treatment plan.
“The commissioner, in his sole discretion, will determine if and when the Player will be allowed to return to the NFL,” according to a copy of the league’s 2020 policy obtained by USA TODAY Sports. “A Player’s failure to adhere to his Treatment Plan during his banishment will be a significant consideration in the Commissioner decisions.”
Should Smith win his bid for reinstatement, he will reunite with Cowboys defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, Smith’s defensive line coach all four years he played for San Francisco. The 49ers selected Smith out of Missouri in the first round, seventh overall, of the 2011 NFL draft.
Suspended Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory is also seeking reinstatement.
The Cowboys lost four defensive starters in free agency including starting right defensive end Robert Quinn, whom the Bears signed to a five-year deal worth up to $70 million.
The Cowboys have also signed defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe in free agency. Like Smith, each has been to a Pro Bowl in the past. And like Smith, each was a first-round draft selection.
The Cowboys hired Mike McCarthy in January as their first new head coach in nearly a decade. McCarthy brought along Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator and Tomsula for the defensive line. The defense will undergo a scheme change, McCarthy has said.
“The way (former defensive coordinator) Rod (Marinelli) formatted each position on where certain guys fit, it’s going to be different here,” McCarthy said Feb. 26. “When you’re throwing away good players because they don’t fit your system, you got to take a hard look at your system.
“If the guy is a good football player, he can play for me.
“I want to be much better on defense at this spot than I was at my last opportunity.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.