The San Francisco 49ers were aggressive on the first day of free agency last season, signing seven veterans to re-shape the roster. The longest deals of the day went to Pierre Garçon and Malcolm Smith, who each got five year contracts. However, both deals offered some flexibility for the team, with Garçon’s including three option years, and Smith’s including two options years.
Smith was expected to come in and play weak side linebacker with NaVorro Bowman seemingly settled in the middle linebacker position with the switch to a 4-3. A month and a half after signing Smith, the 49ers drafted Reuben Foster. This immediately raised questions about the Mike and Will positions. Foster was viewed as the future at Mike, but in the short term was likely to compete with Smith as well at Will.
The debate ended fairly quickly when Smith’s season ended before it could begin. He tore his pectoral muscle during the team’s training camp practice in front of the fans at Levi’s Stadium and was placed on season-ending injured reserve.
By all accounts, Smith is back to 100 percent after rehabbing the torn pec and should be good to go for OTAs and training camp.
Age: 28 (29 on July 5)
Experience: 7 accrued seasons
Weight: 225 pounds
Entering second season of five year, $26.5 million contract. He is due a $3 million base salary, with a roster bonus of $250,000 and a workout bonus of $50,000. His cap hit is $4.45 million. If the 49ers released him this year, they would clear $550,000 in cap space, and carry $3.9 million in dead money this year and $4.2 million in dead money in 2019.
What to expect in 2018
Much has changed since he was signed a year ago. The team released NaVorro Bowman, and Reuben Foster looked good his rookie year when he wasn’t hurt but then got in trouble with a marijuana arrest in January and a domestic violence arrest in February. Neither case has been resolved, and what it means for league discipline is unknown. Additionally, the team drafted Fred Warner in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
All of this is to say, Smith’s role is up in the air to a certain extent. If Foster does not get suspended or released, Smith will be the starting weak side linebacker heading into training camp. Foster would be the starting middle linebacker, and Warner would be competing initially for sub-package work. If Foster is playing, Warner’s long-term role would be to eventually replace Smith on the weak side.
On the other hand, if Foster is suspended or released when Week 1 rolls around, Smith could be the starting middle linebacker with Warner competing with Brock Coyle for the weak side role.
There was some head-shaking when the 49ers gave a fairly sizable contract to Smith last year. It was not a huge commitment in light of the 49ers cap space and the option years, but for a guy seemingly coming off some questions in 2016, it was a bit of a surprise. But, his four years in Seattle provided him with experience in the 49ers defensive system. He at least has a leg up in that regard and can provide some veteran leadership at the position.
Odds of making the roster
I have him as a lock in our pre-OTA bubble watch. Even if Reuben Foster is fully cleared and the NFL announces before the season that he won’t face a suspension, I see almost no chance Smith is released before Week 1. I’ll never say never, but I just can’t see it happening for a linebacker depth chart that has some question marks. And considering their investment in Smith last year, I don’t see them cutting him before he’s even hit the field in a regular season game.