No team has suffered more significant losses this offseason than the Niners. It's not just the fact that four players retired, but two of those four players, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis, have 12 combined Pro Bowl appearances. Moreover, Chris Borland was the de-facto replacement for Patrick Willis at ILB, and Anthony Davis, arguably the least talented of the four, is still a former first-round pick, who seemed destined to anchor the 49ers offensive line for the next decade.
Now, the team's talent level has appeared to have taken another bludgeoning with the sudden release of Aldon Smith, arguably the most talented player left on the 49ers defense after the recent flurry of retirements. I'm here to tell you that the 49ers are better off without the twenty-five year old Smith — both on and off the field.
First, let's start with the moral part of this story. Whether you like it or not, athletes are role models for America's youth. Should an athlete be a role model? Probably not. However, for better or worse, athletes are looked up to as role models. To help understand why, read this fact carefully: 1 in 3 children live without a father, according to the most recent U.S. Census. This leaves a void that most children are only able to fulfill through a celebrity, as many without a father still lack a tangible "father-figure" to give them guidance, whether that individual be another relative, a friend, or mentor.
This leaves us to constantly analyzing and scrutinizing the behavior of professional athletes. According to Mike Rosenberg, since 2012 the 49ers lead the NFL in arrests with twelve, a stat no one should be proud of. While an arrest does not necessarily mean guilt, a pattern of arrests surely means poor judgment, and when it comes to poor judgment, there's no better example of it than Aldon Smith. Since 2012, Smith has accounted for five of the twelve arrests that have plagued the 49ers. The incidents surrounding the arrests include three DUI's, one arrest on three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon, which stems from a party at his house where two people were shot, and lastly, the arrest for Smith's infamous bomb threat at LAX.
Some say these arrests are a product of Smith consciously making poor decisions, while others say he lacks any sort or judgement skills, and is in need of serious mental health treatment. Whether Aldon Smith suffers from mental health issues is a topic that should be left up for debate among mental health professionals. However, what can be agreed upon by all is that football aside, Smith is better without the 49ers, and the 49ers are better without Smith.
The 49ers rid themselves of a player that unnecessarily added to their unimpressive track record in personnel behavior, and Smith will finally have the time to focus on getting his life back on track. There's more to life than football, and while we as fans should care about the 49ers as a whole more than one individual player, this goes beyond the game. This is about a young man, who is a son to two parents, and a friend to many. This is about a young man who is closer to being in a prison cell than a locker room.
From a football standpoint, I am not of the mindset that any time you lose a player with talent, it automatically hurts your team. There are many secondary factors to consider such as age, talent at the backup position, current salary, future salary, and available cap room.
The first question that needs to be asked is "How good is Aldon Smith?" Well, he's not as good as you think he is, at least not without Justin Smith, who is currently hitting the links at his own golf club in Missouri and will never put on a set of pads again.
During his four years in the league, Smith managed to compile 44 sacks, with a record breaking 33.5 during his first two-years. A major factor in achieving these record breaking numbers was Aldon's ability to play in games, as he played in all 32 regular season games over that two-year period. However, since 2012, thanks to a stint in rehab and a suspension, Smith has managed to play in just 18 of the 32 regular season games, with a grand total of 10.5 sacks.
There's no doubt Aldon Smith is a good pass rusher, but is he really a product of his talent, or is he a product of this other guy named Justin Smith? To answer this question, let's take a look at the infamous 2012 sack drought. In order to understand this better, we'll go back to week 15 of the 2012 season. Up until this point, Justin Smith had made 185 consecutive starts over his 12 year career. However, during that week 15 game against the Patriots, Smith tore his triceps and missed the remainder of the regular season, ending his streak of consecutive starts. Ultimately, he opted to forego surgery until the offseason so he could return for the playoffs, but it was clear that Justin was performing at just a fraction of his pre-injury level. No worries though, the 49ers have Aldon Smith's production, right? Wrong. After the injury, Smith failed to register a sack for the rest of the season, including the divisional round, conference championship, and Super Bowl — all three games in which Justin Smith started.
And here comes my point. While it's a sample size of only six games, Aldon Smith showed us that he just can't take over a game with his pass rushing ability. I mean, there's no doubt he can rush the passer. It just seems he can only do it while Justin Smith was being doubled-teamed by the opposing offensive line.
This clip presents a perfect example of what I am trying to illustrate concerning Aldon.
The next problem is the fact that Smith was an Unrestricted Free Agent after the end of this season, which means the 49ers would have to shell out some serious cash to keep him in San Francisco. Now we'll never know how Aldon would have fared under a full season without Justin Smith, so we have to go by his past performance.
If Aldon was to be paid like a top pass rusher, you'd be looking at Justin Houston type money, which is along the lines of $101 million/6 years, with more than $52 million guaranteed. If you wanted to pay him like Jason Pierre-Paul, who has also been wildly inconsistent, albeit for different reasons (until this past Fourth of July), then Smith would be entitled to a long term deal in the $60 million range. Split the difference of the two, and Smith would be in line for a payday around $80 million. No matter how you slice it, this is too much money to give to a player that has been riddled with suspensions and arrests, not to mention whose on-field ability is also questionable.
I wholeheartedly believe if Aldon was able to shine during the six games Justin Smith was playing, he would be entitled to a serious, justifiable payday, even with his off-field issues. Now for those of you who are saying football is a team sport, you are completely right. However, does that mean you're willing to spend anywhere between $60-$100 million dollars on a player who's talent may hinge on those around him? No. You want to spend that type of money on a player who makes those around him better — guys like Justin Smith. There's just not enough evidence that Aldon Smith, by himself, is an impact player.
The good thing is that this is all moot. Smith's locker is all cleared out and in due time he will be a forgotten commodity like Jose Cortez (I couldn't resist), J.J. Stokes, and Julian Peterson.
What's important for the 49ers is to now focus on developing the likes of Corey Lemonier, Eli Harold, and Aaron Lynch. What's important for Aldon is to get his life back on track, before the twenty-five year old ends up celebrating his thirtieth birthday in a 6x8 cell at Pelican Bay.
Regarding the torn labrum issue that many of you are bringing up: Sometimes, those injuries are not as serious as they appear. For example, in 2012, Jared Allen suffered a torn labrum that eventually required season ending surgery, yet after the injury, he still finished with 5 sacks in the past 5 games. Additionally, I would imagine a torn labrum would effect a player like Jared Allen more than Aldon Smith because Allen plays in a three point stance on line on every play, being a 4-3 DE when he was in Minn. Numberous players, including other 3-4 OLBs have successfully played through labrum injuries. While we'll never know the extent of the injury, I still don't think it exclusively limited Aldon to zero sacks over a seven game span--it may have had a hand in slightly limiting his play, but to fall off like he did, that's very drastic. More importantly, he was doing MMA a week after the Super Bowl, pre-labrum surgery. This included sparring in the octagon as well.
Say the injury was the sole cause of his drop off. I still don't think he's worth $60-$100 million based on what he did over a 13 game stretch in 2012.
Remember, there's no conclusive proof that he can produce without Justin Smith, even if you give great deference to the injury.