Three strikes and you're out. After his latest legal fiasco, Aldon Smith's time in red and gold (and quite possibly the NFL) is finished. While nothing about this offseason should surprise anyone anymore, somehow this one still managed to blindside me. There will be plenty of talk about Smith's latest transgression and his previous track record, but that fails to shed light on how this truly impacts the team in 2015 and beyond. To that end, let's move onto how Smith's release affects the team on the field.
Until today, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith were the 49ers starting outside linebackers. The biggest question up until then was where Aaron Lynch and Eli Harold fit into the mix. With Smith released, Lynch finds himself the starter opposite Ahmad Brooks. Lynch missed the entire offseason workout program due to a hamstring injury; naturally, it's being reported that he's out of shape as a result, so he's been working out individually on strength and conditioning to catch up. If there wasn't already, there will be quite a bit of urgency to get him up to speed and on the field now that he's the de facto starter.
This news also elevates third-round selection, Eli Harold. He will be battling Corey Lemonier to be the primary backup to Brooks and Lynch. Lemonier has been a virtual non-factor in his first two seasons, and rumors swirled as to whether the 49ers would release him given the crowd and superior talent within the position group. Lemonier can breathe a little easier now.
While this is yet another significant blow during an offseason that's been the equivalent of unsuccessfully driving through a minefield, the 49ers prepared for this exact situation with the Lynch and Harold selections. Smith's history for doing this sort of thing forced Trent Baalke to draft for a contingency plan in the event Smith would end up in the police blotter again.
So here we are.
Yes, the 49ers lose an All-Pro talent and one of the best pass rushers in the game. But Ahmad Brooks has been one of the 49ers most underrated talents on defense for the past several years. Last year was an exception in which he showed up to camp huffing and puffing, setting the stage for a putrid 2014 season that saw him at odds with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and subsequently benched. This year, he's come into camp fresh and in much better shape. Brooks at his best will go a very long way for this position group and the defense as a whole. It's difficult to say with certainty whether he'll bounce all the way back, but it's looking like a good early bet according to reports. Oh, and cutting down on the penalties (namely, illegal hands to the face) will have to be a top priority as well. That got old pretty quickly last season.
Aaron Lynch flashed tremendous play-making ability in 2014 and seems poised to usurp Aldon Smith's role as a disruptive force in the offensive backfield. As I mentioned earlier, that hamstring issue forced him to miss the entire offseason workout program and now he's making up for lost time. The clock is ticking much louder now. Based on what we've seen in 2014, I don't think there's much reason to worry here outside of the "getting in shape" part. If Lynch can do that, he has the potential to make a nice transition into the full-time starting role and could be the kind of player opposing offenses have to gameplan around.
Lemonier is still a huge question mark to me. I could potentially see them bringing him into the base package when Brooks or Lynch needs a breather. Beyond that, his role doesn't seem too clear and will likely hinge on how quickly rookie Eli Harold establishes himself.
Harold's college tape speaks for itself. He has great burst and can become a weapon in the pass rush department for San Francisco. Look for the Niners to test the waters and slowly integrate him into nickel packages early on. With Lemonier not making a real name for himself during his first two years in the league, it's quite possible Harold eclipses him on the depth chart sooner rather than later.
It's such a shame to see a guy who was elbow-to-elbow with Charles Haley as the 49ers' greatest pass rusher of all time cut such a promising career short due to off-the-field issues. More so, it's abundantly clear that Smith has an addiction issue--a problem that usually stems from a greater problem. Personally speaking, I hope the light bulb has finally gone off and he gets the help he needs. As far as the team is concerned, it's a big hit, but Trent Baalke saw this day coming back in 2013, and he's prepared for it. Now, it's just a matter of seeing how that plan works out.