SANTA CLARA, Calif. - For many players in the NFL, the larger the contract, the more unstable the future.
With salary cap restrictions in place, teams have legitimate reasons to part with players with bloated deals. For 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith, he might have fallen under that umbrella given what’s happened over the last two seasons.
Last spring, San Francisco did Smith a solid by picking up his “fifth-year option” despite his four arrests and looming suspension for 2014 that ended up being nine games for violating the league’s personal conduct and substance abuse policies. Add his five-game leave from the team the previous year and Smith missed a total of 14 games for reasons having little to do with football.
But the 49ers, or general manager Trent Baalke, specifically, have stuck by Smith during his four years of peaks and valleys in the NFL. He backed Smith, and the organization’s decision to keep him around, when it wasn’t the popular move considering the climate of off-the-field issues facing the league.
Last April, days after Smith’s arrest at LAX for an alleged bomb threat, it was clear where Baalke stood in regards to his talented pass rusher. The question was frank. Did he want Smith around in 2014 and 2015 after his fourth arrest since joining the NFL?
”And ’16. And ’17. And ’18,” Baalke said. “...Life is a growing process. It’s a growing process for all of us. He knows what needs to be done. We’re all accountable, each and every one of us in this organization is accountable for everything that takes place, especially when it involves you. There are things we have discussed many times internally.”
This week, Smith elected to give something back to the 49ers for their faith in him. As reported by CSN Bay Area and the Sacramento Bee, Smith restructured his deal, taking away the guaranteed nature of that fifth-year option and turning into a deal centered around incentives.
Smith’s salary will stay the same. But now the deal will be paid in monthly roster bonuses, insulating the team from any more off-the-field transgressions. If Smith has any more run-ins with the law, the 49ers can part from him without facing dramatic implications to the salary cap. His $9.75 cap number is still the second-highest on the team behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
"Aldon appreciates and is loyal to what they've done for him and how they've stood behind him," Doug Hendrickson, Smith’s agent, told Matt Barrows of the Bee. "He realizes he's been his own worst enemy. Really, I appreciate Aldon's approach to it.”
The move by Smith’s camp becomes an olive branch and a step closer to every player’s ultimate goal in the league: a long-term extension.
Before revising his contract, Smith lacked leverage when it came to extension talks. After all, he missed 11 games last season and wasn’t quite himself when he came back. He notched two sacks in his seven games, with a pass rushing productivity grade of of 11.2, graded by Pro Football Focus. His grade for 2013 was substantially higher at 15.1 when he had nine sacks in 11 regular season games, and two multi-sack games in the playoffs against the Packers and Seahawks.
When watching the first half of training camp last summer, it was clear. Smith was the most dominant presence on the field. It might not have meant much, considering the first two weeks of camp don’t always correlate to the regular season. But when his nine-game suspension was announced before the season opener, the affects seemed ominous for the 49ers. They went on to lose two of their first three games, hindered greatly by an inability to get to the opposing quarterback in their losses to Chicago and Arizona.
Now, Smith enters the most important offseason of his career, and the first since his rookie season with a clean slate. It was the summer of 2012, before his second year, when his infamous house party led to his reported stabbing and charges for possession of illegal assault rifles.
To be sure, Smith will likely attend the team’s entire offseason program, mandatory or not, to prove he’s back to being the player he was when he amassed 42 sacks in his first 43 games. And if he can prove himself with his behavior away from football, then the 49ers have incentive to give him the long-term contract his camp covets.
But having Smith in his previous form to rush the passer in the coming years wouldn’t be the only benefit for San Francisco. A contract extension could also allow the team to lower his cap number for 2015, giving more freedom and flexibility going forward. Even if that happens after the team deals with free agency, cap space rolls over to the next year. Saving money now means it’s saved later.
If Smith proves worthy during the offseason program, than it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see a new deal in place this summer before training camp starts at the end of July.
Before signing free agents Darnell Dockett and Jerome Simpson this week, the 49ers had just $6.5 million in cap space, needing to allocate over $5 million of it for their incoming draft class. If a new deal for Smith included guaranteed money prorated over the length of the deal, his base salary would come down, as would his cap number, giving the team added flexibility.
If the 49ers want to add any more free agents, or bring back any of their own (Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Chris Culliver, et al), they’re going to have find ways to shed payroll, which could include making cuts and/or restructuring contracts with some of their more expensive players.
(A full list of the team’s salaries for the coming year can be found here, courtesy of Overthecap.com)
Now, the 49ers are no longer faced with the daunting idea that their second-highest paid player is their most volatile. That risk in Smith’s volatility diminishes greatly with the restructuring of the fifth-year option.
In a broad sense, it puts the ball in Smith’s court, which is where it should be. If he can manage his life and turn back into one of the league’s premier defensive players, it’s a win for both sides.
If not, the 49ers have an out to end the Smith saga for good.