In the first public appearance by a 49ers official since Aldon Smith’s airport arrest April 13, general manager Trent Baalke said Friday the team was disappointed but would stand by the troubled linebacker.
“We’re a family,” Baalke said. “You don’t just open a door and toss people out.”
But Baalke was vague about how the team would handle the May 3 deadline for picking up a fifth-year option on Smith’s contract that would pay him nearly $10 million in 2015. Baalke said it’s still being discussed internally. According to a league source, the 49ers are leaning against picking up that option.
Smith, 24, has a court date next week in relation to a September DUI arrest and gun charges stemming from a party at Smith’s home that grew out of control in June 2012. In addition, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office is considering whether to file misdemeanor charges against Smith for allegedly saying he had a bomb as he went through Los Angeles International Airport security.
Smith is working out at the team’s Santa Clara facility as part of the voluntarily conditioning program that began Monday.
During a nearly hour-long session with reporters – mandated by the NFL in the run-up to the draft – Baalke walked a line between saying he was unhappy with Smith’s actions, as well as those of several other 49ers in recent years, and defending his players.
He said the team isn’t doing anything different this year in terms of determining the character of draft prospects.
“We’ve always looked into character,” he said. He also said the 49ers have had “very few off-the-field incidents over the last three, four years.”
But there have been seven arrests – three involving Smith – since January 2012, and three other players have been involved in police investigations in which no charges were filed.
“Are we disappointed that we’ve had a string (of incidents)? Absolutely. Absolutely we are,” Baalke said. “But all the same, very proud of the group of men that are in that locker room and what they stand for on the field and off the field. And have a lot of trust in them. A lot of trust. As much trust as I have in them, almost (as much) as the trust I have in my own family, my own children.”
As for Smith’s state of mind, Baalke said: “Growing. Starting to understand, starting to realize the importance of his own accountability.”
Challenged that Smith shouldn’t be “starting to understand” after so many police-blotter incidents, Baalke said, “Aldon has made very good strides in a lot of aspects. He continues to work at it every day, just like I do, just like anybody else. You try to become a better person every day. ... Sometimes, you hit a speed bump. And you’ve got to learn. Repeat offenders, when it becomes repetitive, it certainly becomes a concern. But once again, you continue to work.”
There’s a good chance Smith will be disciplined by the NFL and could miss games this season. Baalke said the team would prepare for the worst when it came to the upcoming draft but he was confident in backups Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier should Smith miss time.
Baalke pointed out the 49ers won all five games Smith missed while in an alcohol rehabilitation center last season.
“ ‘Next man up’ isn’t just a hollow term,” he said.
Among the other topics Baalke discussed:
• He doesn’t expect the ongoing Miami police investigation involving Colin Kaepernick to alter the team’s contract negotiations with the quarterback. But he said the nature of those negotiations is that “they’re long, they’re drawn out; they can be tedious.”
• He was aware running back LaMichael James, who is forfeiting a $50,000 workout bonus by not taking part in the team’s conditioning program, was unhappy with his role in the offense. But he reiterated the 49ers are not trying to trade James.
• Inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman continues to make good progress from his torn ACL. Baalke also said left guard Mike Iupati, who suffered a broken leg in the same game Jan. 19, is recovering well.