The San Francisco 49ers are one of the NFL's most successful teams over the last three seasons. With three NFC championship game appearances and a trip to the Super Bowl, their roster is balanced, their coach has the locker room and there's no reason to not consider them a front-runner to get back into the title game for a fourth straight year.
It just may be without stud edge rusher Aldon Smith, who's most recent legal set-to involves him allegedly making a bomb threat on an airplane.
It boggles the mind of why a sober, well-adjusted person would want to do something to that effect, and, according to San Jose Mercury-News reporter Tim Kawakami, the front office of the 49ers is collectively wondering the same thing.
My view, after talking to several sources involved with the 49ers’ decision-making, is that troubled linebacker Aldon Smith hasn’t only lost the benefit of the doubt, he probably won’t play for the 49ers in 2014.
Smith has been in trouble often in his three years in the NFL, stemming from multiple DUI arrests to a four-game suspension last year, it seems very reasonable he receives a significant suspension from the league or even the 49ers for the 2014 season.
Along with that comes the team's plans to move on from him. Whether Smith is guilty of what he's being accused of, clearly, there's a pattern in his behavior. A franchise that's currently among the best defensive units in the game can't afford to not hedge their bet against either a suspension, or even their decision to not retain him when his rookie contract expires after the 2014 season. Being a 2011 first round pick, the 49ers have an option for a fifth season with Smith. If he's suspended, that would mean retaining him would require them to give him a substantial raise for the 2015 season.
Understatement of the year: That seems a tad risky.
Kawakami wrote the team is "very unlikely" to pick up that option anyway. That's a powerful statement, considering Smith is one of the best players from that draft class, and a critical member of San Francisco's defense.
With the draft stock (whatever that is worth) of physically talented edge rusher Anthony Barr falling in recent weeks, he's a player who might be available at or around the 15th pick. San Francisco, drafting at 29, may now be compelled to think about moving ahead to take a guy they could groom to replace Smith in the future.
While Barr likely (read: definitely) won't be able to fill Smith's shoes this season, it may be too late for the 49ers to expect to find comparable production in the event Smith is suspended. They have the same decision to make as most other teams on May 3 - whether to pick up the option year on their 2011 first round pick (some have already declared their intention to do so).
This may force the 49ers to make immediate decisions based on projections of where they will be at the rush OLB position in two years.
San Francisco dealt the 31st and 74th picks in the 2013 NFL Draft to the Cowboys for the 18th pick, one that netted LSU safety Eric Reid for the 49ers. San Francisco has the 13th pick in the third round (77th overall) from a trade with Tennessee, and also has two second-round picks. While it may be wiser to a certain degree for them to simply look to replace Smith with one of their five top-100 picks, using two of them for the athletic Barr makes sense. This is a team that got 16 sacks out of Smith his rookie year while playing him in less than half of the team's defensive snaps.
Advantage: Steelers. Maybe 2014 can be something of a similar nature, considering how heavy this draft is on wide receivers and cornerbacks, the two biggest positions of need for Pittsburgh. It would give the team four picks in the top 100 (15, 46, 77 and 97) from which they can use to help bolster depth that has been depleted over the last few seasons.
It's a tough decision for the 49ers, but it wouldn't be surprising, should Barr fall as many are anticipating, the two teams start talking.