The San Francisco 49ers head into 2015 season expecting big things from outside linebacker Aldon Smith. He spent the first half of last season suspended for his DUI and gun charges, and when he did return, he was a bit inconsistent.
Smith finish the season with 24 quarterback hurries and six hits, but only two sacks. For comparison's sake, in 16 games in 2012, he had 37 hurries, 13 QB hits and 20 sacks. His hurries and hits were on pace for highs, but he did not finish the job nearly enough. That's not to say hurries and hits are not valuable in forcing the quarterback into a bad position. But his ability to take down the quarterback has been critical for this defense.
The 49ers are two weeks into their offseason workout program, and it is no surprise that general manager Trent Baalke is pleased with where Smith is currently at in preparation for 2015. Baalke spoke to the media on Friday, and he had a chance to speak about Smith:
"He's hungry. He's got a great look in his eye. For anybody who has been in a situation like Aldon has been in, every day is a process. But he's doing exceptionally well, and he's probably in as good of shape as he's been in in a long time. He's starting to develop into a leader out there, which is good to see. It's been a pleasure to watch."
You can believe what you want about that comment. In light of everything we hear from players, coaches and executives, I am becoming more and more skeptical until we actually see what happens on the field.
That being said, if there was ever a time for a player to get serious about his career, it's now for Aldon Smith. He enters his option season with a lot to prove. He shattered sack records to start his career, but his numerous off-the-field issues have held him back from being the best pass rusher in the NFL. He has missed time for rehab and suspension, both of which likely led to him having to accept a roster bonus heavy contract from the 49ers.
The team picked up his fifth year option a year ago, but recently converted it to primarily roster bonuses that payout through the offseason and then the season. Both sides can say what they want about it, but few people trust Aldon Smith. He is working to re-build the the trust, and potentially work out a sizable long-term contract extension.
I don't see any way he gets an extension this calendar year. The 49ers likely want to see him clean up his act and earn a long-term deal, but they need to see him stay out of trouble and be productive throughout the season. And even if he has a monster year and avoids trouble, there will always be an element of risk in extending him.
Smith is in a position where he really does have to follow that cliche of taking things one step at a time. Ideally he is continuing that process and comes out of it in great shape. We're left to just wait and see how the next year plays out.