Aldon Smith has had a disappointing journey so far…can he turn it around?
The Rise and Fall of Aldon Smith
Arguably the most talented player left in free agency today is outside linebacker Aldon Smith. At just 26 years old, Smith still has time for improvement and carries one of the highest ceilings for pass-rushers in the NFL. Despite these factors, Smith remains unsigned by any team because of a string of off-the-field issues, especially issues related to drug and substance abuse. He is currently serving a one-year suspension for the violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, and is eligible to be reinstated in November of this year.
One of the most exciting pass-rushers in the modern era has fallen from the precipice: I want to take a look at his journey.
Coming out of Raytown High School in, who-woulda-guessed-it, Raytown, Missouri, Aldon was rated just a three-star recruit by most scouting sites, including Rivals. In high school, Smith was a defensive playmaker, recording numerous turnovers in a variety of ways. After graduation, Smith decided to stay in-state and attend the University of Missouri.
At Missouri, Smith redshirted as a freshman, and played his first games for the team in 2009; a season in which he finished with 60 tackles and 11 sacks. That season, Smith earned a number of honors including First-team Freshman All-American and Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. The following season we only saw Smith play nine games and though his statistics dropped a little, he declared for the 2011 NFL Draft.
Evaluated as what we would call today an EDGE rusher, Smith was, on average, coming off of mock draft boards near the middle of the first round. For someone who saw a light dip in performance in his last season of college play, this was actually very strong evaluation once you consider the talent that was in this draft.
For perspective, every player drafted ahead of Aldon would go on to be an All-Pro. Further, notable players drafted after him include Tyron Smith, J.J.Watt, Robert Quinn, Muhammad Wilkerson, among others. Despite this amount of talent available in the first round, Aldon Smith was picked seventh overall by the San Francisco 49ers.
Before he was drafted, scouts had questions regarding his initial burst, frame, and stoutness against an NFL rushing attack. However, this was not what was most worrisome for Smith. Even before entering the NFL, there were questions about Smith’s character and his off-field behavior. According to a scouting service for certain NFL subscribers, Aldon had “some past experience with getting into trouble and is a higher-than-average risk for this sort of behavior in the future.”
And perhaps even more importantly, the service’s report indicated that “He [Aldon Smith] does not consistently show the kind of passion and commitment to the game that we see in successful players.” There were clearly early signs of risk available to teams, but perhaps the upside and raw potential of Smith was too much to pass on.
The Early Years
Though Smith did not make any starts for the 49ers his rookie season, largely thanks to the team’s established defensive depth, he managed to surpass Hall of Famer Charles Haley’s single-season rookie sack record. By the end of the season, Smith had racked up four pass deflections, two forced fumbles, and a whopping 14 sacks.
This was enough to put him in second place for defensive rookie of the year behind close friend and future Super Bowl MVP, Von Miller. Unfortunately, Smith capped off his rookie season by being arrested in Miami Beach for DUI in January. This was just the beginning of a series of missteps.
His sophomore year, Smith had a somewhat meteoric rise as he became a starter for the 49ers. After passing legendary pass rusher Reggie White for the fastest to 30 career sacks, Smith was on the verge of tying or even breaking Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record. However the hype fizzled after Smith recorded zero sacks in his final three games of the season, leaving him at a career high 19.5 sacks.
Yet, even with a rather disappointing end to the season and lackluster performance in the playoffs, people were intrigued by the potential in the then 22-year-old. He, J.J. Watt, and Von Miller were all the rage of young pass-rushers in the NFL. But Aldon slipped up again.
Let the Spiral Begin
After starting his third season with 3.5 sacks in just two games, the linebacker proceeded to be arrested for another DUI and drug possession in September of 2013. Shortly afterwards, Smith was hit with three charges of possession of an assault weapon stemming from a party back in the summer of 2012.
Following a crushing defeat by the Indianapolis Colts, Aldon checked into a rehabilitation center, missed five games, and finished the season with strong performances; in fact, despite starting in just seven games that season, Smith graded out to be the third best 3-4 outside linebacker in the league according to Bleacher Report. Further, it seemed as though he had improved through the years, not only being a force in the pass rush, but also an excellent run defender. Clearly, the talent was still there for Smith, but was the focus?
In April of 2014, Smith was charged with making a false bomb threat at LAX and shortly held in jail. Though he was not convicted in the end, his pattern of unintelligent and rash off-field behavior had become a stumbling block for his place in the NFL. During the summer of 2014, after Smith’s assault weapon charges were coming to a close in court, the NFL suspended him for nine games of 2014 season: four for substance abuse and five for personal conduct.
Regardless of how talented you are, how can you help your team if you’re suspended for the majority of the season? What’s worse is that Aldon had a chance to reduce the suspension through good behavior, but did not do so after failing to complete counseling. After logging another season with missed games and just two sacks, Smith was in a position to pick himself back up and try to fulfill his potential. Sadly for all us Aldon Smith supporters, he had other things in mind…
Soon after 49ers GM Trent Baalke had said Aldon Smith was going to “work hard to make sure…[Aldon Smith] remains here,” Smith got himself arrested yet again in August of 2015 for DUI, hit-and-run, and vandalism. At news of this arrest, the 49ers had no choice but to release the young talent. The following month, Smith decided to join the Oakland Raiders for a fresh start, but in November, he was suspended for a year because of his August DUI incident.
After a quiet few months from Aldon Smith, this brings us to the present. He is a 26-year-old unsigned free agent who is not eligible to play football in the NFL until mid-November. He’s a former three-star recruit out of high school who was drafted seventh overall in one of the most talented drafts in recent memory, and rose up in just two years to become one of the most feared pass-rushers in football.
On the other hand, he’s also a young man with maturity issues, a string of arrests, and a pattern of misbehaving off the field. He has been suspended several times for several games by the NFL, and another violation of the substance abuse or personal conduct policy could land him an even more substantial suspension than the one he is currently serving.
I still believe Smith has value in the NFL. Despite his image and the reputation he has built up, his talent is unquestionably immense, and his ceiling is incredibly high. Most of his missteps came during the offseason, when he is not engaged in the set structure of a football team. If someone can take the time to mentor Smith and build a strong structure for his behavior, I believe Aldon Smith still can become what many of us envisioned him to be: an unstoppable pass-rushing monster with more speed, strength, and length a man of his size should have. The question now is, will anyone invest in him?
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