Derek Smith did 49ers a favor

Derek Smith could have waited a little longer. In the case of the veteran LB, waiting longer could have been worth millions of dollars. "It probably could have helped me," Smith said Monday after inking a three-year deal with the 49ers that will pay him handsomely but not exorbitantly. "But that wasn't the No. 1 thing to me." Instead of chasing big bucks, Smith decided chasing a championship with the 49ers is more important, and his return makes the team's chances that much better to get there.

Let's face it: Smith did the 49ers a favor when he agreed to a three-year deal that will pay him about $7.5 million in base salary over the length of the deal. According to documents filed with the NFL Players Association, Smith's contract extension included a $6 million signing bonus that makes the total package worth almost $14 million.

That's not exactly chump change for a heady, productive linebacker who doesn't exactly play at the level of a Brian Urlacher. But Smith could have gotten more from some other NFL team had he waited a few more days for the imminent start of the league's free agency period.

And we're talking much more.

First of all, Smith could have gotten a contract with more years. And that would have meant more money, in the form of a larger bonus that could have been spread over a longer contract. He easily could have gotten an eight-figure deal instead of the high seven-figure deal he settled for with the 49ers, and there would have been several teams attempting to out-bid each other for his services.

"There were a number of teams," Smith said. "I can't really discuss who they are, but there were definitely some teams that were interested. My agent said I could really do well in free agency."

And why not? Though opinions may vary on the level of his talent, the fact is the hard-working Smith was set to become one of the top inside linebackers available on the open market this year. The numbers don't lie. Smith has been San Francisco's leading tackler every season since he joined the team in 2001, recording 163 last year and a team-record 189 in 2003. Smith has recorded 123 tackles or more in each of his nine NFL seasons, becoming one of only three active linebackers to assemble such a string.

So why is he selling himself short to stay with a rebuilding team that won just six games in the past two seasons?

That's not quite the way Smith sees it.

"This was the place I really wanted to be," Smith said. "Staying in San Francisco was the best thing for me professionally and for my family. I believe what coach (Mike) Nolan is doing and I think we are headed in the right direction and I want to be part of that. They were really good about working with my agent and we were able to get it done."

It's a fair deal that pays Smith in line with what he's worth. But some other team likely would have overpaid for him – possibly by the millions – which makes this deal relatively a bargain for the 49ers, who will be relying on Smith as one of the key cogs in their rising defense, not to mention one of the primary veteran leaders in their young locker room.

When SFI asked Smith how important money actually was in his decision, Smith said, "Obviously, it was a driving factor. This was my last opportunity to sign a good, strong deal. I had to take advantage of that. I didn't want to go into free agency, but if it meant security in the future for my family, I had to try it.

"But everything worked out here. Both parties are happy. I'm happy with how they treated me. It's just a win-win situation all the way around."

It's definitely a victory for the 49ers, who were able to retain one of the best players among their 15 veterans headed for unrestricted free agency at a reasonable rate, leaving them plenty of cash in their war chest – not to mention space below their salary cap – to go bidding for other high-priced veterans once the free-agency period actually does begin.

"We're excited about retaining Derek," Nolan said. "We were diligent in our efforts to retain Derek and we are pleased that we were able to reach an agreement that reflects his value to the team while addressing future needs of the club."

The 49ers also wrapped up Smith for the rest of his football life, which may mean they'll be getting a little extra bang for their buck as Smith lays it on the line during the length of his new deal.

Smith, who turned 31 in January, revealed Monday that he has put a timetable on his career. He plans to retire at the end of his new deal with the 49ers.

"That's the most I want to play," Smith said. "My wife said I would be talking differently in three years, and I said I might be. My body still feels good and I have taken much better care (of it) than I did when I started in the NFL. I just feel like I'm a lot better off now than when I entered the league. But even if you are feeling good, I figure 12 years in the NFL is a long time. It's not good on the body. I want to be able to play with my kids."

But for the next three years, the kids Smith will be playing with are the youngsters that will be lining up next to him on San Francisco's growing defense. Only defensive lineman Bryant Young will be older than Smith on that defense in 2006.

Smith is eagerly looking forward to every minute of it. He could have signed with a team that's closer to being a title contender – for more money – but decided he wants to stick around for better things to come with the 49ers.

When asked what he thinks the 49ers can accomplish during the next three years, Smith answered without hesitation. And, yes, he wasn't joking.

"I'm hoping to get a ring," he said. "That's what I am looking for and that's what my goal is, to get to the Super Bowl. I truly believe in what coach Nolan is doing. I feel he is taking the team in the right direction. That had a big bearing on me signing back, because of my belief in him and his staff. We have a lot of young guys on this team who have game experience, which is the best thing by far. That does nothing but make our team stronger."

And that's what Derek Smith just did for the 49ers – he made them nothing but stronger, while getting their offseason shopping off to a rousing start.

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