Despite Baggage, 49ers Should Keep Aldon Smith
It has not been a good couple of weeks in the news for the San Francisco 49ers. Their first three draft picks from the star-studded class of 2011 all were in the news for the wrong reasons. First, Chris Culliver, already facing a tough road back from last summer's ACL tear, was arrested for a hit-and-run incident. Culliver is known for his unfortunate comments prior to Super Bowl XLVII about homosexuals in football. He then was torched by the Ravens during the game, but has been a reliable defensive back during his first two seasons.
Then, a few weeks later, the “suspicious incident” in Miami involving Colin Kaepernick, Quinton Patton, and former Niner Ricardo Lockette occurred. While the buzz in both of those cases has died down a bit, and it seems the investigations are helping both players' causes, the shroud of Aldon Smith's legal complications loom large as an important date comes up for him and the 49ers.
Saturday is the last day the Niners can pick up Smith's fifth-year option, which was a new addition to the CBA in 2011. If picked up, Smith would remain a Niner in 2015, at a very reasonable price to boot. Despite a stint in a rehabilitation center during the middle of the 2013 season, it seemed like a no-brainer Trent Baalke woulud pick up the OLB's 2015 option. However, with his most recent off-field indiscretions, it seems a lot less likely now. There have been a litany of transgressions for the transcendently talented Smith, starting in 2012 with a DUI arrest. Normally, I think a false bomb threat wouldn't be a very damning crime, but combined with Smith's other issues — substance abuse issues and weapons possession — it looks pretty bad.
Already facing a suspension for his issues with the law in 2013, Aldon Smith is still not a candidate to be cut. The 49ers would not see any cap savings on the $4.5+ million cap hit that he has in 2014. That's the easy decision. The tough one comes next week when they have to decide whether or not to pick up that option. Unfortunately for the 49ers brass, the investigation is still ongoing and no charges have even been filed yet. Although they'll be able to get some information that's not available to the general public, there still has to be a bit of uncertainty about Smith's latest actions.
While there have been dueling reports saying the Niners are NOT going pick up the option and visa versa, I believe it's in the 49ers' best interest to keep Smith around.
Options, Options, Options
If picked up, Aldon Smith would get a one-year contract equal to the league's transition tag number for outside linebackers, which is somewhere between $8-10 million. It's a non-guaranteed contract, save for an injury, so the 49ers could still cut him during next offseason and they wouldn't take a cap hit. You take that deal with an above average player, so pondering NOT picking up Aldon Smith’s option seems like heresy.
Let’s not forget the player that Smith has been over his first three seasons in the league. If you want the gaudy counting statistics — 42 sacks in 43 regular season games — they are overwhelming. Additionally, even during a fractured 2013 season in which he went to a rehabilitation facility after Week 3, Smith was still a dominant pass rusher. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith rushed the quarterback on 306 occasions during 2013, coming away with some kind of pressure (sack, hit, or hurry) on 55 of those snaps. That’s pressure on nearly 20 percent of his snaps, a number that he didn’t come close to during his 19.5sack season in 2012. Although some may point to Justin Smith as the true catalyst for Aldon’s production, the tape doesn’t lie. Smith is 6-4, 260 with long arms and athleticism so he can stand up in the traditional 3-4 outside linebacker two-point stance, but he can also move inside and play with his hand in the dirt.
The 49ers brass has to ponder this decision. Smith's versatility, domination, and still-evolving talent is a lot to give away for free. Could you imagine the backlash the Niners would receive after Smith signs on with another team in 2015 and starts wreaking havoc on the rest of the league? The Niners took heat for playing Smith in Week 3 of 2013 after his DUI arrest, but this blowback would surpass that. The media-driven strain on Baalke and Harbaugh’s relationship would go to DEFCON-3.
Now that Aldon Smith’s “false-bomb threat” case has been bumped down to a misdemeanor, the pressure to pass on his option will probably be lessened. Of course, he’s already facing charges for weapons possession, and will likely be suspended by the NFL for part of the 2014 season when those charges are squared away. Whether it’s four, six, eight, or some other number of games that he’ll miss in 2014, the number of games really shouldn’t have any bearing on the decision to pick up his option.
Could it be a scare tactic? Leave Smith without a contract during the 2014 season, one in which he’ll only play a handful of games, and maybe you can get him to sign a team-friendly, multi-year deal. While that would be a savvy move, I doubt it happens. Smith would have too many people in his ear to tell him he’d be able to land a lucrative deal on the free agent market. However, you would hold all the power if you pick up his option and have him on a non-guaranteed contract for 2015.
With his airport incident looking like a scene out of “Meet the Parents” instead of the fiasco it might’ve looked like when first reported, picking up the option would ultimately give the 49ers a fairly cheap year and a half of control over Smith. All the while, they would have the ability to negotiate an extension or give Smith his outright release if he continues his poor behavior.
Also, don't forget: the team always gets information from the police that the media isn't made aware of. With new facts emerging in Kaepernick's case in Miami, as well as Smith's case at LAX, the hounds have backed off a little and the accusations seems milder than expected. Additionally, Smith was set for a day in court on Tuesday, stemming from his weapons charges. It's certainly feasible to say the Niners are waiting to see what comes from this latest appearance to factor into their looming decision.
As we get closer to the May 3 deadline, and more 2011 first-rounders see their options picked up, you can’t help but wonder if the 49ers are ready to move on from their All-Pro OLB after 2014. While they’re a team not short on draft picks, since 2011 they’ve understood the idea of a competitive advantage. Are they putting that aside and making a business decision over a football decision in this instance?
Possibly, but judging by the conflicting media reports, it’s possible the Niners are ready to take this choice down to the wire.