At one point in his career, 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith was averaging nearly one sack per game. That talent and production made it easier for the 49ers to stand behind him through multiple arrests and a nine-game suspension in 2015.
But patience had its limits. Even before Friday’s latest incident, the 49ers had squeezed Smith with the implied threat of cutting him before his fifth-year option salary of $9.754 million became fully guaranteed, getting him to convert much of the money to non-guaranteed payments. (He eventually made $1.1 million for being on the roster from April 1 through August 1, and presumably another $500,000 workout bonus.)
Before accepting the dramatically altered one-year deal, Smith presumably looked around to see what another team would have paid Smith if he’d forced the 49ers to cut him.
Now, Smith has to find another team to hire him; what another team will pay him is secondary. And it could be a while before anyone decides to give Smith his latest second chance.
With an arrest for vandalism, hit-and-run, and DUI raising issues under both the substance-abuse policy and the Personal Conduct Policy and given that Smith was suspended nine games last year under both policies, it could make sense to wait and see what happens between Smith and the league before giving him serious consideration.
But if someone wants to squat on his rights now, the smart move would be to insist on at least a two-year deal, since most if not all of this year could be lost to a suspension. (If the entire year is lost to a suspension, the contract would toll, extending the two years to 2016 and 2017.)
Apart from any league discipline, a new employer would have to be sure that Smith will once and for all find a way to overcome his apparent struggles with alcohol. After multiple trips to rehab, the issues remain. And with staying in the NFL not enough of an inducement to keep Smith away from alcohol, there’s no reason to believe just yet that the latest wakeup call will take.
Still, with great pass rushers a rarity and with coaches, General Managers, and owners hoping to compete for championships, a potential contender has to be thinking about what a focused and eligible Smith could do to make a good team into a potential Super Bowl team.
Intriguing landing spots for Smith include other teams in the NFC West, like the Seahawks and Cardinals. Or other potential NFC contenders, like the Packers, Lions, Vikings, Saints, Falcons, Cowboys, Eagles, and Giants. AFC teams like the Patriots, Steelers, Colts, and Chargers also could be intrigued.
Even though it’s possible if not likely that Smith wouldn’t be available until the stretch run, having Smith stashed away could end up being the difference late in the season between a team playing on Smith’s former home field in Santa Clara in February or watching the game at home.