The 49ers went with pragmatism over principle on Friday, opting to pick up the fifth-year option on Aldon Smith’s contract that will pay the troubled linebacker nearly $10 million in 2015.
The 49ers deliberated until hours before the deadline for the decision because they wanted as much information as possible on Smith’s ongoing court cases and perhaps as an attempt to send a message to Smith that they are uncertain about his future.
Smith, 24, is facing charges for a September DUI and for possessing illegal weapons. A hearing earlier this week did not bring a resolution – and with it an indication of how the NFL might punish Smith – and a court date was set for May 12.
In addition, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office is considering whether to file misdemeanor charges against Smith after he allegedly made a bomb threat at Los Angeles International Airport last month. A spokesman said a decision may not come for another week. Smith also was arrested in January 2012 for DUI, which was reduced to reckless driving.
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By picking up the so-called “fifth-year option” on Smith’s contract, the 49ers will pay him $9.75 million if he is on their roster at the start of the new league year in March. That amount is only guaranteed if Smith sustains an injury that would keep him out of action for 2015, and the team can release him at any point until then.
Picking up the option was the practical outcome to the 49ers’ dilemma because it gives the team control over Smith, who would have become a free agent in March, for another season. Every player taken ahead of Smith in the talent-laden 2011 draft has had his option picked up.
And while $9.75 million would make him one of the highest-paid players on the team, it’s less than the nearly $12 million franchise tag that also was an option for retaining Smith for 2015.
General manager Trent Baalke hinted at this move last week when he said the 49ers would not give up on Smith, a former first-round pick who has 42 sacks in 43 games played.
“I’m a firm believer in the humanistic approach to everything,” Baalke said. “You continue to work, just like you would with any family member. We’re a family. You just don’t open the door and toss people out of it. You continue to work until they leave you no choice.”
Baalke had a meeting this week with Smith, who has been taking part in the team’s offseason conditioning program.