SANTA CLARA – In the past several years, the 49ers have felt their locker room – led by hardworking players such as Justin Smith and Patrick Willis – could handle talented players with so-called character concerns.
That notion, we can now say with certainty, was wishful thinking.
For as workmanlike and professional as Smith, Willis, Frank Gore, Joe Staley and other team leaders are, their character hasn’t rubbed off on every player, and it hasn’t protected the 49ers from quickly earning a reputation as the NFL’s most notorious troublemakers.
Aldon Smith’s arrest Sunday for allegedly making a bomb threat at LAX was the seventh time a 49er has been arrested since January 2012 when Smith – who rivals Justin Bieber for police-blotter frequency – was pulled over in Miami Beach Fla., and charged with DUI.
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The total doesn’t include last year’s ugly incident in which linebacker Ahmad Brooks was investigated for allegedly hitting a teammate in the head three times with a Heineken bottle (charges ultimately were not filed) or the ongoing case in Miami involving Colin Kaepernick and Quinton Patton. Neither player has been interviewed by police, and no charges have been filed.
It also doesn’t include the rollover accident in which Smith was involved in September 2012 – a deer jumped out in front of the car, Smith said – or the stab wounds he received during an out an out-of-control party in June 2012 or the gun-possession charges he’s now facing that also are related to the sprawling house party.
Smith is due in court April 29 to answer the weapons charges as well as his most recent DUI arrest in September.
He could receive jail time. He could be suspended by the NFL or 49ers. He could be cut by the 49ers. At the very least, he is under contract for just one more season and could be a free agent next year. Every scenario – most of them bad – is on the table for Smith, the most talented pass rusher in franchise history.
Which is why the team must consider taking a pass rusher in next month’s draft. Along those lines, the 49ers will host one of the nation’s top pass rushers, Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, for a predraft visit later this month.
But more than a specific position, the 49ers must elevate high-character players on their draft board.
Three years ago, both general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh gushed about all the “gold-star” players they landed in the draft. Baalke said that when the team was putting together its draft board, it placed gold stars next to names of players they felt were their types of players: hard workers, family men, intelligent players, team leaders.
The 49ers’ 2011 draft haul, they said, was a veritable milky way of high character.
“I don’t remember the number – how many (stars) we put on each guy in the draft – but I can tell you this. We by far, the 49ers, got the most gold stars of anybody in the draft,” Harbaugh said at the time. “It was at least double when I was making my random count. That’s not to compare other guys and what other teams are looking for. It was just what we kind of were looking for in this draft.”
As it turns out, all that’s gold does not glitter.
Three players from that draft class – Smith, cornerback Chris Culliver and center Daniel Kilgore – have been arrested since February. The second player the 49ers took that year, Kaepernick, is waiting for his name to be cleared in the investigation in Miami.
The 49ers do have an excellent core of veteran players. And they definitely have drafted some players who truly deserve gold stars next to their names, such as last year’s first-round pick, Eric Reid, a safety, and fourth-round pick Marcus Lattimore, a running back.
But they also have seen some of their locker room leaders like Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers sign elsewhere this offseason. Others, such as Justin Smith and Gore, are in their 30s and in the final years of their contracts.
Which is to say: It might be a good time to restock the locker room with leaders.