Ask any NFL agent or salary cap guru and he’ll tell you that picking up the fifth-year option on Aldon Smith’s contract is the prudent, no-brainer move for the 49ers.
The Rams are doing that with their pass-rush specialist, Robert Quinn, and the Texans exercised the option with defensive lineman J.J. Watt. In fact, just about every team with a high pick in the talent-laden 2011 draft is expected to use the fifth-year option on its young, star player.
Doing so in San Francisco would allow the 49ers to lock in Smith, perhaps the most talented pass rusher in franchise history, through the 2015 season at a below-market cost and with minimal risk. Triggering the option would pay Smith $9.75 million next year, but it would not be guaranteed, except for major injury, until the start of the new league year March 15.
That is, it would allow the 49ers to cut ties with Smith if, 11 months from now, they still felt uneasy about the troubled outside linebacker.
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The 49ers, however, are leaning against picking up that option. Why? Because they don’t think it’s the best thing for Smith. Doing so would send an odd message: We’re extremely unhappy about your recent behavior, but here’s a nearly $10 million reward.
What Smith needs are consequences, which to this point have been minimal for someone with so many serious issues in the past two years.
His 2012 DUI charge in Miami Beach – his blood-alcohol level registered .194 and .176, according to two breathalyzer tests given at the time, police said, far above the legal limit of .08 – was reduced to reckless driving. Later that year, he was stabbed at an out-of-control house party. Later still, he was involved in a rollover accident near his home. The 49ers arrived on the scene and took him to the hospital with which they are affiliated, Stanford Hospital, even though it is 30 miles from where the crash occurred.
The consequence of Smith’s year of living dangerously? The 49ers voted him the team’s MVP at season’s end.
When he again was arrested on suspicion of DUI the following year, he missed five games after checking into an alcohol rehabilitation program. But he also played every snap in a game just two days after the incident and played 11 games when he returned to the team later in the season. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suggested in October that the time Smith voluntarily spent away from the team could suffice as far as any league punishment.
To this point, the 49ers have said nothing beyond “we are disappointed” in Smith because they don’t yet have all the facts about his recent arrest at Los Angeles International Airport. In fact, even the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office is waiting to see details of last week’s incident in which he allegedly said he had a bomb and, according to police, appeared to have been drinking.
The DA has a two-pronged case against Smith, one regarding the September DUI charge and the other relating to illegal rifles found in his bedroom following the raucous house party in 2012.
Smith’s next court date is April 29. Four days after that is the deadline to decide whether to trigger the fifth-year option in his contract.
The 49ers want Smith to get back on track, they want him to escape the self-destructive behavior threatening to drag him under, and they want him to rise up and become the top pass rusher he has the ability to be.
But for that to happen, he needs better motivation. He needs neither more coddling nor a $9.75 million extension but rather stern, tough love.
There need to be consequences.