Aldon Smith has not played in an NFL game since Nov. 10, 2015, with the Oakland Raiders, but the Dallas Cowboys defensive end does not believe his absence will impact his ability to rush the passer in his 2020 return.
"I still feel great," Smith said Friday in a conference call. "I still feel young. I still can move well. I still have a great knowledge of the game, if not better knowledge of the game. I learned a lot from the guys I played with in California and they taught me a lot of good things."
Smith, 30, holds the NFL sacks record through the first two seasons of a career (33.5) and holds the San Francisco 49ers' single-season sacks record (19.5 in 2012), but a series of off-field issues involving the NFL's substance abuse and personal conduct policies led to an indefinite suspension. Last week, Smith, who signed a one-year with the Cowboys in April, was granted conditional reinstatement.
He took part in the team's virtual meetings this week for the first time.
"It has been a journey, indeed, and a journey I'm grateful for," Smith said. "I've had time to really work on myself and take advantage of all the support and things that have been offered to me. The way I look at where I am now to who I was in the past, I was a young teenage boy in a man's body, so a man on the outside but a boy on the inside. The way I handled the issues, life, was in that immature manner and that was fear-based and not just handling things the way I should have.
"With the time I've had to work on myself, it's allowed me to grow into the man that I man that I am so the man on the inside fits on how the man on the outside looks."
Smith said the passing of his grandmother from ALS last year aided in his change. As she struggled with the disease, "she was able to get a message to me that [was] just do better and basically go out there and get what you deserve."
Smith worked with the group Merging Veterans and Players and was in a sober-living environment in Los Angeles since last fall, working out daily. He said his desire to return to the NFL returned quickly.
"I think I lost my way along the way and I wasn't sure what my purpose was," he said. "I know football is one of my many purposes God has put me here for, so once I was able to do some self-reflecting and self-worth, it was like, 'What am I good at? What am I grateful for?' Obviously God has given me this talent and a chance to play and I'm going to give it a shot ... because it didn't finish the way I wanted."
Smith said other teams had interest in signing him but the addition of Mike McCarthy as head coach and Jim Tomsula as defensive line coach influenced his decision to sign with the Cowboys. He met McCarthy last December in Los Angeles while working out, and Tomsula was his position coach in San Francisco.
"Just seemed like the best fit," Smith said. "Being with Jim in San Francisco and him being here and then the meeting me and Mike had, the way that that happened, we seemed like we clicked the first time we talked."
Smith will continue to have a similar off-field infrastructure around him in Dallas in terms of sober living. His agent, Ron Slavin, also lives outside Dallas. The Cowboys have a history of helping players who have had off-field trouble.
Smith said he weighs 285 pounds, about 15 more than when he last played.
He said he does not want to forget the path that led him to Dallas after such a promising start to his career.
"Because I do understand what that person was going through and just didn't know or wasn't ready to handle the tough things that I needed to handle," Smith said. "To get to where I am now, it gives me a greater appreciation for who I am now. If I was so quick to forget where I came from, I don't think it would matter as much to me."