By now, we all know his story.
OLB Aldon Smith has been one of the more dominant pass rushers since he entered the league in 2011, but has let off-the-field struggles stagger what could have been (and might still be) a Hall of Fame career. His laundry list of issues has included weapons charges, driving under the influence, and a false bomb report.
Now, in the last year of his contract, the question is whether or not Smith truly has a future with the San Francisco 49ers.
It’s easy to think that if Smith keeps his nose clean and plays well, the Niners would be willing to at least discuss a long term deal with him. But given his track record, would one season be a large enough sample size to trust that Smith has put his issues behind him?
Barring any further setbacks, when you look at the salaries of outside linebackers comparable to Smith, it’s likely committing to him could cost around $15-$20 million in guaranteed money. That’s a significant amount of cash for someone who may or may not be able to keep their head on straight for the duration of any contract.
The 49ers also have to consider whether or not Smith is still the same player he once was, or if his best years may be behind him. That sounds crazy for someone who won’t be 26 until September, but his numbers recently have to at least give the team some pause.
In his first 35 regular season games (from 2011 through the first three games before he went to rehab in 2013), Smith totaled 38 sacks. He recorded at last one sack in 22 of the 35 contests (63%).
Since then, Smith has played in 15 of the team’s next 29 regular season games and has a mere six sacks. Looking deeper, he’s only recorded a sack in three of those 15 games (20%).
It’s fair to make the argument that the dip in production was due to him missing time over the last two years, and there’s definitely some merit to that. Still, Smith’s decreased performance puts even more emphasis on him to have a big 2015 if he has any prayer to get an extension from San Francisco.
Another factor that may hurt Smith’s ability to stay with the 49ers is the fact that the team has been preparing for the future at the position. Second-year OLB Aaron Lynch was so good in 2014 as a rookie (six sacks), that the coaching staff often went to him over incumbent OLB Ahmad Brooks. Even if Brooks is still on roster to start the season, Lynch is likely to see more playing time and should be the unquestioned starter by 2016.
While Lynch plays on the opposite side, Smith will still face competition in the form of third round pick (No. 79) OLB Eli Harold. The rookie is unlikely to push Smith for playing time at this point, but if he shows enough promise the Niners would be more inclined to let Smith go if they feel the younger and cheaper Harold could start.
With so much to gain and lose, Smith’s story will be one to keep an eye on all season as the 49ers will need to make a decision on him sooner rather than later.