The San Francisco 49ers made official this week what became clear throughout last season:
They are going young at linebacker.
That means 33-year-old Derek Smith is out and 26-year-old Lance Briggs could well be in.
Smith started 14 games for the 49ers last season, but Patrick Willis was the leader of the unit—even as a rookie. And with youngsters like Manny Lawson, Parys Haralson and Tully Banta-Cain, Smith became the old man out.
"Decisions like this are a difficult part of a great business," coach Mike Nolan told reporters after the 49ers cut Smith on Tuesday. "Derek has been an important member of the 49ers, and you don't make these kinds of decisions without battling the emotion that is natural when you are dealing with a player that has done so much for your organization.
"We made the decision because we have quality linebackers who we think are the future of the 49ers," Nolan said. "Derek was a model professional during his seven seasons with the 49ers, and he influenced a lot of the younger players with his work ethic."
Smith still finished as the team's fourth-leading tackler last season; his 78 stops were 36 more than Haralson had.
But Jeff Ulbrich had replaced Smith in the nickel defense, and Lawson will be back this year after he missed most of the 2007 season with torn ACL. The 49ers also have Brandon Moore and Roderick Green.
The 49ers figure to find another inside linebacker somewhere, and it could be Briggs, the Chicago Bears' No. 2 linebacker who will be a free agent on Feb. 29. Ulbrich is not the long-term answer, and Briggs and Willis—the 2007 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year—would make an excellent tandem.
Smith had one season left on his contract, but $3.28 million is too much for an aging player. The 49ers instead will try to use that money to sign Briggs.
Meanwhile, Smith will look for work elsewhere. The New England Patriots are always looking for 30-something linebackers, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him join Zach Thomas, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel.
"I enjoyed my time with the 49ers over the last seven years," said Smith, who was the team's leading tackler for most of those seasons. "It is unfortunate that we did not accomplish what we wanted to during that time. I wish the team the best of luck, and I hope they get to where they want to be soon. In the meantime, it is time for me to move on and find another team in the NFL."