With Aldon Smith getting detained by LAX police yesterday for allegedly mentioning something about possessing a bomb, many have called for the San Francisco 49ers to cut him. Cut Smith, cut Chris Culliver, cut anyone who runs afoul of the law. It’s an understandable sentiment, bolstered by fatigue stemming from a stream of embarrassing incidents that has reached flood stage.
The 49ers aren’t going to release starting-caliber players. That is, until they can no longer contribute. And we can wring our hands all we want about who the supposed “face of the franchise” is, but it doesn’t matter if that labels falls on Jed York, Trent Baalke, Jim Harbaugh or some combination of the three. Most of the players are upstanding citizens, but even the worst troublemakers can’t be watched by the 49ers’ front office 24/7.
That brings us to a question the 49ers must answer soon, and probably a little too soon for their liking.
Reminder: #49ers have until May 3 to exercise fifth-year option on Aldon Smith’s contract. Price tag for 2015 would be $9.75 million.
— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) April 14, 2014
Will the 49ers exercise this option? If physically and mentally healthy, a shade under $10 million for Smith in his age-26 season is a bargain compared to what he’d get as an unrestricted free agent. The mental part is obviously a huge question, and even if he doesn’t get charged for this latest incident in Los Angeles (and I have a feeling he won’t), the red flags are obvious — especially considering the following quote:
“He was not what we considered to be intoxicated,” LAX Police Sgt. Karla Ortiz told CSNBayArea.com, “but he appeared as if he had been drinking earlier in the day.”
But even if Smith is off the wagon, Matt Maiocco also reported that sources have said there’s no question at all. The 49ers will secure Smith for his fifth season, regardless of the legal issues he faces.
I’m in almost total agreement with those sources. Like, 97% agreement. Maybe even 98% agreement. The 49ers have already put a lot of time and effort into Smith, and he’s the team’s most talented player (other than Colin Kaepernick … maybe). But there are reasons to wonder if the 49ers might think twice.
The 49ers have been very protective of their financial hierarchy. That’s why there was no chance of them bringing in DeSean Jackson at an annual rate higher than Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis or NaVorro Bowman. No one is currently slated to make a higher base than Willis’ $7.065 million in 2015 (Willis can also make about $1.7 million in bonuses, which still brings him below what Smith would make if the 49ers exercise his option).
If the team signs Colin Kaepernick to an extension, he’d make somewhere in the neighborhood of double what Smith would get in 2015 (if the 49ers choose to keep him). Still, as the 49ers earmark dollars for defense, do they want to send the message that Smith is THE guy of that unit?
Again, I don’t think the LAX arrest is going to lead to much of anything. But the 49ers seemed to hope that Smith’s voluntary five-week absence last season would cause the NFL to err on the side of leniency, sort of like when a university imposes sanctions on itself before the NCAA takes action.
With this latest incident, plus the alcohol rumors that came with it, why wouldn’t the NFL suspend Smith the full amount for violating the league’s conduct policy?
Since athletes in their prime almost never get locked up unless it seems pretty obvious that they’ve killed someone (hello, Aaron Hernandez), it has always seemed likely that Smith would skate on his DUI and weapons charges with some community service time, a hefty fine and probation … and, at the absolute worst, a short stint in jail during the offseason.
I’ve been pointed to Aldon Smith’s April 29 court date for DUI and weapons charges as a possible very significant moment.
— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) April 14, 2014
— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) April 14, 2014
Here’s the kicker (and just to clarify, that’s just a figure of speech; it doesn’t mean Phil Dawson has been arrested) — Smith’s 2015 option is only fully guaranteed if he’s on the roster at the beginning of the 2015 season. So the 49ers could exercise the option and release him later if he seemed like a lost cause.
However, it’s interesting that this court date is four days before the fifth-year deadline. Again, it’s more than likely that the 49ers will exercise the option. But if there’s anything that could cause the 49ers to reverse course on their current M.O. (talent first, pretend to worry about arrests, screw the haterz) and take a stand against this recent avalanche of misdeeds, possible imprisonment for the guy who keeps getting into scrapes with the law could do it. If Smith is behind bars, he can’t contribute. And if he misses most of the 2014 season due to a lengthy suspension and/or prison time, he may have difficulty getting a contract that pays him close to $10 million per season.
Of course, Smith will probably plea bargain his way into lots of community service time, get in trouble again during the 2014 season, and we’ll continue watching this cycle repeat. Until the 49ers take a stand, the only smart assumption is that nothing about their current M.O. will change.