The 49ers have now lost 10 starters from last year’s squad. Aldon Smith’s departure, however, stings a little more than most.
His dismissal occurred just a little more than a month before the start of the regular season. And, at 25, he was a young and impactful player at a key position. A look at the repercussions of his release:
Financial – The 49ers had been building a nest egg this season. They’d been working with roughly $10 million worth of salary cap space, which, if unused, would roll over to next season. That surplus was going to be used to sign a player. Who? Smith, of course. If he had had the season they hoped, he was going to command a huge, new contract and be the defensive counterpart, financially speaking, to quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
How do they spend the money now? They could look outside their roster for help. Fans are wondering why the 49ers, with question marks on the offensive line, don’t target free-agent guard Evan Mathis, who went to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons. His addition theoretically would help stabilize the interior of the line and allow guard Alex Boone to kick out to right tackle. The 49ers’ philosophy, however, has been to invest in homegrown talent. Mathis is 33 and looking for a big payday.
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As far as the 49ers’ own players, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis are entering the final years on their contracts. So are Boone and nose tackle Ian Williams. And it might be smart to lock up a young, talented player with two years left on his original deal, something the 49ers have been good at in recent years. Defensive lineman Quinton Dial fits that description to a tee.
Personnel – Two days ago, Corey Lemonier seemed like a roster goner. The 49ers had four either established or promising players at outside linebacker: Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Aaron Lynch and rookie Eli Harold. Lemonier, a third-round pick in 2013, was No. 5 and thus expendable.
Now it’s not as clear. Brooks is a lock to start this season and, as was the case with Smith, had a promising offseason. Lynch, who played nearly 50 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last year, seems like a good choice to be Brooks’ counterpart. Lynch, however, dealt with a back injury all offseason, and he’s just now starting to get in playing shape. That is, it’s unclear when he will be full go or whether his back will be problematic.
The 49ers have gone with only three outside linebackers in the past, including during their Super Bowl run in 2012. Still, given Lynch’s issue, it might make sense for the team to have four players at the position, which gives Lemonier a better shot at the roster.
Strategy – The 49ers already had planned to blitz more this season than they had in previous years. Now they may do so out of necessity.
The team’s previous defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, discovered he rarely had to manufacture a pass rush because the 49ers’ front-four rushers, especially Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, could pressure the quarterback on their own. Three stalwarts of Fangio’s lines – both Smiths and Ray McDonald – suddenly are gone. Of the 49ers’ 154 total sacks over the last four regular seasons, those three have accounted for 801/2. Of that, 44 belong to Aldon Smith.
Emotional fallout – Smith’s fall was a blow to general manager Trent Baalke for several reasons. First, he was a Baalke favorite, and the general manager cares deeply about him. Baalke has defended and supported Smith at every turn during the linebacker’s troubled tenure in San Francisco.
Why did Jim Tomsula, and not Baalke, hold the news conference to announce Smith’s release? Because Baalke was with Smith at the time and spent hours by his side. “There’s a lot of emotion,” Baalke said Saturday. “Players have it, we have it, we have it on the personnel side, coaches – everyone in this building. I mean, (Friday) was a tough day for a lot of people.”
Baalke’s reputation also was built largely upon the way he constructed the roster in 2011, his first as the team’s general manager. That year’s draft, in turn, hinged on Smith. Baalke drafted him seventh overall, which most observers thought was too high until Smith finished with 14 sacks, the most ever for a 49ers rookie. Baalke was named the NFL’s Executive of the Year after the season.
To be fair, the class also included four others who are still on the roster: Kaepernick, running back Kendall Hunter, center Daniel Kilgore and fullback Bruce Miller.