Sakamoto: Why Malcolm Smith injury, doesn’t impact projected starters

San Francisco 49ers running back Matt Breida (49), defended by linebacker Malcolm Smith (51), runs a pass route during training camp, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, in Santa Clara, California. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

The San Francisco 49ers received unwelcome news yesterday, as the team endured the season-ending loss of seven-year veteran OLB Malcolm Smith. The USC product suffered a torn pectoral muscle during yesterday’s open practice, and will now miss the entire 2017 season. 

The 2011 seventh-round pick (No. 242) came to San Francisco by signing a five-year deal worth $26.5 million ($13 million guaranteed) this off-season. However, new 49ers GM John Lynch will now have to take a wait-and-see approach with his prized free-agent, as Smith undergoes rehab. 

Smith has been taking first-team reps in practice since signing with the Niners, but I don’t think it was because he was the better player. I believe that familiarity was the reason why Smith was penciled in with the first-string.

However, 49ers DC Robert Saleh would probably beg the differ. When asked about being reunited with his MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII while with Seattle, Saleh gave the following response:

“The familiarity is a cool thing, but Malcolm is actually a really, really good football player. He was a victim in Seattle being behind [Seattle Seahawks LB] K.J. Wright and [Seattle Seahawks LB] Bobby Wagner. Two All-Pro players in my mind, especially K.J., very underrated. But, he was a Super Bowl MVP for a reason. They’ve kind of gotten away from the scheme in Oakland, and to bring him back to this scheme to where he can run and hit and do the things that he’s great at is going to be very beneficial for him and for the organization.”

Notice how Saleh made no mention of pass coverage. If you’re an Oakland Raider fan, you know all too well what I’m talking about. Smith was a huge liability in this area and not much has changed since. 

But the question remains, would Smith have been the day one starter anyways? I don’t think so. 

The 49ers didn’t trade up in the tail-end of the first-round to have rookie LB Reuben Foster ride the pine. So if that theory holds true then why isn’t Foster taking first-team reps? Good question. The answer has to do with the team’s cultural identity.

No player is untouchable. No one is going to get a free pass. That’s the identity head coach Kyle Shanahan wants to instill in his players. Everything will be earned. Nothing is given. Saleh echoed that theory when asked why Foster wasn’t getting second-team snaps in practice.

VIDEO: 49ers Reuben Foster delivers violent blows! Kills ball-carriers!

“Reuben, he has a lot of flash plays. The best way I can explain with Reuben is he’ll get his opportunity when he absolutely, absolutely deserves it. The credit really goes to the backers in that room also, that they also deserve every opportunity that they’re getting as well as him. As a group, we’re just trying to work through it and make sure that we do our best to evaluate and give them all an equal opportunity to be evaluated,” said Saleh. 

On the surface that’s how it appears. Internally, you can’t help but think the coaching staff and management is hoping for Foster to be the day one starter. Will they say it publicly? No. But behind closed doors, it’s quite obvious that the team foresees Foster as a special talent. 

Shortly after Foster was drafted, Lynch spoke highly of Foster labeling him a game-changer while also admitting he was his draft crush. 

VIDEO: 49ers’ Jed York anticipated Ravens drafting Reuben Foster

“I think we called everybody in the league [trading up]. It’s a player I liked [Foster], we liked, our staff liked. I’ll tell you this too, and I think it’s a credit to the other guys we have at that position, we’re a 2-14 team. So, there’s some holes, but inside linebacker, we felt pretty good about already. I just, and Kyle and I got to the point where we felt this is a game-changing player and I think for that you go with the best player and that’s what we did.”

VIDEO: 49ers MLB Reuben Foster blows up Leonard Fournette, LSU Running Back’s reaction? Priceless!

Do game-changers ride the pine? No. They play. Foster is a game-changer, Smith is not. Foster is making plays on the ball in pass coverage and intercepting passes, Smith is not. Foster is getting sacks on the quarterback and creating havoc in the backfield, Smith is not. The best players play, insert Foster. 

Sakamoto: 49ers GM John Lynch clearly rebuilding defense from inside/out

Which then begs the question, why did the Niners fork out all that money to a player who wouldn’t be starting? Well, there was no way Lynch could foresee Foster practically falling in his lap on draft day (watch video above). 

In the end, I don’t believe Smith would have won the starting outside backer spot even if healthy. The team already has reliable yet solid OLB Ahmad Brooks locking down one side, LB NaVorro Bowman playing ‘Mike,’ and a first-round pick, Foster waiting in the wings. 

Ryan is the Founder/CEO of, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at or call him at (408) 622-0996.