Once word broke that Aldon Smith had been arrested at Los Angeles International Airport, the hot take express went into overdrive about whether the team should release or trade Smith. That was followed by some more general queries as to whether the team would pick up his 5th year option. As discussed yesterday, the team has until May 3 to decide on Smith's option. This comes only a few days after Smith's April 29 court hearing related to his DUI and gun possession charges.
The latest reports coming from Ian Rapoport (supported by Mike Garafolo) indicate the 49ers are uncertain of what they will do with the option:
Unlikely #49ers have enough answers on Aldon Smith by 5/3, deadline to pick up his option. Which is why it’s hard to see them picking it up— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 15, 2014
Agree w this. RT @RapSheet: Unlikely 49ers have enough answers on Aldon Smith by 5/3 deadline to pick up option, hard to see them pick it up— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) April 15, 2014
Rapoport's tweet was followed by a report stating that it appeared unlikely the 49ers would pick up the option:
Rapoport, citing people informed of the situation, reported late Monday that the 49ers will wait until the last minute to make a call, but it's appearing unlikely they will pick up Smith's option. The 49ers want to gather as much information as possible on Smith, and it's unlikely they will have enough facts to commit long-term by the deadline. It is more likely that the Niners let Smith play out the 2014 season and take it from there.
I do not doubt that someone with the 49ers told Ian Rapoport that the team is uncertain about the option. I believe this for two reasons:
1. The 49ers are still collecting facts on the LAX incident, and Aldon Smith has his April 29 court date related to the DUI and gun possession charges. We do not know how potential plea negotiations might be going, and we do not know how the LAX incident might impact plea negotiations. Aldon could still win in court, but if he is not able to plea out to avoid jail time, it makes any contract decision-making problematic.
2. The 49ers face a public relations problem. Even if you were to think Aldon Smith is getting rail-roaded by TSA, Kap is getting hosed and Chris Culliver's crime isn't that big a deal, perception is what starts to matter. It remains to be seen just how much Jed York, Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh are concerned about that perception issue. I think they are concerned to some extent about the off-field problems of players, but to what extent we don't know. It is possible that whomever told Rapoport that the team was not sure could be doing a little bit of spin. The team shows they are taking this seriously, and are not making rash decisions. That's not to say that they are not actually taking it seriously, but given the bad publicity, PR spin doesn't exactly hurt.
All that being said, I don't see the 49ers declining Aldon Smith's 5th year option. Some see it as "making a statement" to Aldon to get him on the right path. In a vacuum, that makes some sense. But in the context of how the option works, I just don't see the 49ers declining it. If the 49ers exercise the 5th year option, it is ONLY guaranteed for injury until the start of next year's league year. When next year's league year starts (mid-March), it will then be fully guaranteed. Ian Rapoport tweeted that the 49ers don't want to play a semantics game, but I just don't see it quite like that.
If the 49ers pick up the option, it provides them with numerous scenarios. If this TSA thing proves to have been overblown and Smith avoids trouble this year, the 49ers have him for 2015, and can work on a potential contract extension. If this TSA thing is not overblown, and Smith continues to have problems, the 49ers can still elect to release or trade him without cap implications for 2015.
There is also talk about signing him to a lesser deal if he shows he's doing OK this season. That remains an option as the team could still sign him to a new deal and tear up the option. It's not a particularly simple situation though, so I can't say anything is guaranteed to happen at this point.
We're in a bit of a limited position right now because we still don't have all the facts about the LAX arrest. Some folks are quick to blame the cops and TSA, others think Aldon's a moron. My guess is it ends up falling somewhere in the middle. As more information comes out, we'll start to get a better idea of what is going down. In the meantime, I do not expect the 49ers to decline his option, but obviously a lot can happen between now and May 3.