The San Francisco 49ers were incredibly busy this offseason, adding a host of talent as part of their roster overhaul. They don’t seem to be done adding players, but the bulk of the training camp competitors are on the roster at this point.
They offered some deals that caught people by surprise in terms of the dollars, but generally there are arguments to be made for each of them. The Kyle Juszczyk deal gets a lot of attention given he was made the highest paid fullback in the NFL. However, another deal gets attention as well.
NFL writer Brad Gagnon put together a list of the biggest offseason mistake for all 32 NFL teams. He listed the Malcolm Smith signing as the 49ers biggest mistake. He talked about several weird contracts, including sizable deals for Juszczyk and Pierre Garçon, as well as signing two Chicago Bears quarterbacks. But he thinks all those moves offer some semblance of hope. He does not think so of the Malcolm Smith signing. He had this to say:
The one unfathomable is the one they gave to Malcolm Smith, who continues to live off a decent 2013 season and the Super Bowl MVP award he won at the end of it.
PFF graded the 2011 seventh-round pick out of USC as one of the 10 worst inside linebackers in the game while in Oakland last season and one of the 20 worst (out of 60 qualifiers) the year before that. He hardly saw the field with Seattle in 2014, which means he peaked when he won MVP in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Smith does nothing but plug holes, but even in run defense, he's a replacement-level player at best. He can't rush the passer, he can't drop into coverage. He's just...meh.
But the Niners gave him a five-year, $26.5 million deal with $11.5 million guaranteed, making the soon-to-be 28-year-old the ninth-highest-paid inside linebacker in football.
The Smith signing seemed a bit extreme at the time, given the dollars involved. The decision to draft Reuben Foster only added to that given that he is expected to be a weak-side linebacker. It means solid depth at the position, but seems like overkill given the 49ers other needs.
However, as is often the case, I can make some lemonades out of this lemon. If Foster is not healthy by Week 1, then Smith is the option on the weak side. But if Foster is healthy, as everyone on the 49ers keeps saying, they have some rotational options. My guess is that initially, Smith would play the WILL role in the base defense, and Foster would come on in the sub packages. It could be a little bit like 2011 when Parys Haralson played the OLB role in the base, and Aldon Smith replaced him as defensive end in the nickel. Obviously different roles involved, but a similar kind of rotation.
One upside to the addition of Smith is his work in Seattle’s defense from 2011 to 2014. 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was defensive quality control coach for Seattle from 2011 to 2013, so there is a connection there. I imagine the 49ers are hoping Smith can help implement these defensive changes in year one.
In some ways, Smith’s contract reminds me of Brian Hoyer. Although they are signed for different lengths (Smith for five years, Hoyer for two years), they have similar fully guaranteed money. Smith got $11.5 million fully guaranteed at signing, while Hoyer got $10 million fully guaranteed at signing. Smith’s last two years are option years, so in reality it’s more like a three-year deal. You could almost say Smith is kind of like a bridge linebacker similar to Hoyer being a bridge quarterback. He does not present a long-term solution by any means, and Foster could supplant him fairly quickly. However, I also don’t think it’s quite as awful as one would see at first glance factoring in the money and the 49ers cap space.