When Aldon Smith Returns...
It’s been over a week since Aldon Smith checked into a rehabilitation facility to get help for an apparent addiction, which was brought to light with his latest DUI arrest, his second in the last two years. No one can comment very much on the nature of the addiction, and that’s really the way it should be. It’s a personal matter for Smith to take care of and it’s nice to see that it’s really staying that way. There is speculation that he will return after about a month away. While I won’t speculate on when he will return, I’ll try and dissect how Smith might look when he returns to the 49ers’ lineup. Will he be distracted? Will time away from the field get him off his game? Let’s take a look.
Now, let me get one thing straight. Smith needs to spend as much time away from the Niners as it takes to get straightened out. Whether you agree with the 49ers decision to play him in Week 3 or not, they’ve taken the proper action in allowing Smith to go away for as long as he needs to sort out his issues. Another move the 49ers made is to continue Smith’s weekly pay until he comes back. They know how valuable he is to the team, and they don’t want to alienate him. So, although they’re doing the right thing for their defensive stud right now, the front office is clearly looking to the future. Smith is a free agent in 2015, so the 49ers can start negotiating an extension this summer. Trent Baalke and company obviously would want to get a discounted contract extension done with his outside linebacker, so keep an eye out for that in the offseason.
As for Aldon Smith’s play on the field this season, he didn’t show any signs of being distracted in the game against the Colts. He played every snap, had two quarterback hurries, a sack, and six defensive stops. For as much as the Niners struggled in the game against Indianapolis, Smith’s only poor play came on Andrew Luck’s play-action bootleg touchdown to seal the game, and the entire defense was fooled on that play. That’s not to say he won’t face obstacles when he returns to the field. Aside from getting back into game shape and acclimating himself with his teammates again, Smith will face a bombardment of media questions. The team and Smith will face questions, and surely will present a united front, but Aldon will have to be the one to block out the distractions on the field.
After watching him for two plus seasons, I doubt that occurs. Aldon Smith has always been a player that has relied on his unreal physical gifts to change the game. Despite playing just over half of the 49ers’ defensive snaps as a rookie in 2011, he totaled 77 total pressures. As much as he owes Justin Smith for the one-on-ones he takes advantage of to pile up his gaudy sack totals, his size, speed, and aggressiveness from the edge has almost as much to do with it. It’s up to Smith to put aside the murmurs surrounding his rehabilitation and to play football. The only thing that’s really sapped him of his playmaking ability on the field so far in his career is injury, either to him or to Justin Smith.
However, one potential hiccup in Smith’s return may be his condition. We won’t know if he’s working out at rehab, and quite frankly, it doesn’t matter. He has to get straightened out before he can worry about football. With word that it may be up to 5 weeks before he returns to the 49ers, Smith’s fitness will certainly be an issue when he comes back. With Vic Fangio testing out some new looks with his sub-packages on defense, such as rookie Corey Lemonier seeing more snaps in a pass rushing role, Aldon can be eased back into the lineup. This would also reduce some of the pressure that would have been heaped on Smith in the lead up to his comeback. It will be interesting to see if the Niners hold Smith out when he comes back to the team to get him back into shape for the stretch run of the regular season. Five or more weeks away from the field will take a definite toll on any player. However, judging by how the team handled his initial arrest and subsequent playing time just 48 hours later, I’d expect to see Smith in the starting lineup the first week he’s eligible.
It’s still too early to tell when Aldon Smith will be back. It’s probably not even something we should worry about until it’s confirmed that he’s taking to his rehab. However, the 49ers are a team that has title aspirations; not just this season, but the next few as well. Aldon Smith is a huge part of the future, so the Niners are taking that investment very seriously. While this situation is still very cloudy, expect Smith to take the field again this season, and while his reps might be managed, he’ll still be a major part of San Francisco’s potential playoff run.