Aldon Smith had off the field issues stemming back to his collegiate days at Missouri. The San Francisco 49ers knew that when they selected him seventh overall in the 2011 draft. This isn't an uncommon tale, especially in the National Football League. If a prospect can play, they are worth a shot and you hope that your coaches and veteran players can help steer the troubled individuals in the right direction.
For Smith, it appears that he has problems that run deeper than anyone originally thought. The 49ers have done their best to support him over the years, but when do off the field problems outweigh what a player can do on the field?
When is enough, enough?
What we know
Smith was detained at LAX airport for becoming "belligerent and uncooperative" when he was selected for a second screening after going through the security line. He then, at some point, made a reference to having a bomb and was again uncooperative before being arrested. Charges of a false bomb report carry up to one-year of jail time.
Smith is also scheduled to be in court at the end of April to face felony gun charges stemming from an incident at his home in 2012. In addition, he's been arrested multiple times for driving under the influence, the latest of which resulted in him missing five games during the 2013 season to enter a substance abuse rehabilitation program.
On the Field
There is no doubting Smith's impact on the field when he's healthy and has his head on straight. In his first two seasons, he broke the 49ers' rookie sack record with 14.0, and followed that up by eclipsing Fred Dean's franchise single season record with 18.5. Despite his issues in 2013, he still managed 8.5 sacks in 11 game (8 starts). Overall, he has 42.0 sacks in 43 career games and has posted double-digit sacks in 12 of those contests.
If Smith were on a lesser team, one could argue that his production and impact on a game is irreplaceable. However, on the 49ers, that may not be the case. It's unlikely they could have another player put up the sack totals that Smith does, but they do have enough talent to still be a very good defense without him.
For evidence of that, look no further than the five games Smith was out in 2013. The 49ers went 5-0 during that stretch and the defense gave up just over 12 points a game. The team used a mix of Dan Skuta and rookie Corey Lemonier to make up for not having Smith on the field. As far as production, the team averaged 2.0 sacks a game without him, as opposed to 2.5 with him. While there was some drop off sans Smith, you could also make a case that Lemonier will be a better player in years two and three which could make up for the gap.
Smith is in the final year of his rookie deal but the 49ers do have a $9.5 million option for the 2015 season. They have until May 3rd to exercise it. The exact date of Smith's court hearing is April 29th, so the team may have some answers to the gun and DUI situations by then, but they are still trying to piece together what happened at the airport. That will take more time before the picture becomes clear.
The 49ers may be leaning towards just letting Smith play out 2014 and taking it from there. While $9.5 million is a bargain for a player of Smith's caliber in between the lines, it could be too steep of a price to pay for someone who looks more and more like a ticking time bomb.
Preparing for a Future Without Aldon Smith
Barring a trade, release, or jail time, Smith will be with the 49ers this upcoming season. With players like Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati also due to hit free agency after the upcoming year, it's looking more and more like this could be the final run at a championship with a number of the core players from Jim Harbaugh's first three seasons.
The 49ers do have Lemonier in the fold, who showed enough in limited playing time last season the think he could be an effective contributor. Should they choose to go the draft route, San Francisco will have enough picks (six of the first 100) to take an outside linebacker early on in order to groom the player(s) as a replacement .
Consider as well that the 49ers are in a fortunate position to have multiple defensive cornerstones in their front seven. While they are getting older on the defensive line, they still have Pro Bowl talent with Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks to round out the linebacker corps. They could easily deal with not having Smith in 2015 (or possibly sooner), as those three players will still be in the fold.
The End Game
While the situation looks bleak right now, it's always possible this could be a final wake up call for Smith. It's hard to believe anyone would want to flush away a possible Hall of Fame career and millions of dollars. But maybe Smith is not just anyone. Maybe Smith is a troubled person with demons you and I can't fathom. If that's the case, the man needs help and it might be best for him to get it without the safety net of being a professional athlete.
Al Sacco is a San Francisco 49ers writer for 49erswebzone.com, 49ersgab.com, Rantsports.com, and Sportsoutwest.com. Follow him on Twitter @AlSacco49