Can the San Francisco 49ers Feel Comfortable Giving Aldon Smith a New Contract?

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Can the San Francisco 49ers Feel Comfortable Giving Aldon Smith a New Contract?
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Under a normal set of circumstances, the San Francisco 49ers would be jumping at the opportunity to renegotiate with star linebacker Aldon Smith

Since entering the league in 2011 as the seventh overall pick, Smith has been nothing short of a pass-rushing extraordinaire. With 42 sacks in his first three seasons, Smith has been a force to be reckoned with and an absolute terror for opposing linemen. 

His dominant performance has carried into the playoffs as well, making plays when they count the most: 

Aldon Smith Through Three NFL Seasons
Games Starts Tackles Sacks Postseason Sacks
2011 16 0 31 14 2
2012 16 16 49 19.5 0
2013 11 8 34 8.5 3.5

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/

Entering 2014 with only one year remaining on his rookie contract, however, the 49ers would normally be expected to feverishly work on securing a new deal for their defensive stalwart. But while the statistics are eye-opening, a troubling off-field record commands considerable attention as well. 

After starting every game in 2012, Smith was unable to suit up for five games this season during the fallout from a September arrest on suspicion of DUI. As noted by Nate Stuhlbarg of CSNBayArea.com, Smith voluntarily entered a treatment facility for substance abuse after the incident.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press/Associated Press
Playmaking ability has never been the question with linebacker Aldon Smith.

Unfortunately, this was not Smith's first involvement with the law since becoming the first draft pick of coach Jim Harbaugh's regime. Smith was also arrested for suspicion of DUI in January 2012 and later stabbed at a house party in June 2012, according to ESPN.com.

Smith currently has a court date scheduled for March 13, according to Stuhlbarg's report.

Since returning to the 49ers in the middle of the season, Smith has said all the right things. According to Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, Smith reflected on the experience as a wake-up call:

I’ve said I’ve grown a lot and I’ve been growing. You know, I came in the league on the young side of things. I’ve just taken every free chance I’ve gotten to get better and grow. I mean that. I think everybody should take the time they get just to grow and just get to where they want to be.

Still just 24 years old, Smith has been forced to mature quickly under the hot spotlight of the public eye. Smith continued to reference the support of his teammates as the source of a new positive mindset since the accident. 

The young linebacker has also promised to avoid repeating those mistakes in meetings with both the 49ers and the league, according to Kawakami's report. But when the time comes to write the checks, just how much will these words prove to be worth?

For now, it depends on who you ask. 

Some believe that Smith's on-field production will force the 49ers' hand, such as Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com. Others, such as Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, believe that the team will heavily weigh the off-field issues into their approach. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/Associated Press
Smith has said the right things since returning to the team, but how far will his words take him in contract talks?

At the end of the day, the team may not feel entirely comfortable trusting the dollars and cap space for Smith, at least initially.

Elite pass-rushers are a valuable asset in today's NFL and difficult to come by. However, the risk of missed playing time is difficult to balance against production, and Smith is clearly on thin ice after multiple offenses as a professional.

Fortunately for the 49ers, they may have the perfect intermediate solution, according to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle

While Smith is now eligible for a new extension under NFL rules, the 49ers are also able to exercise a fifth-year option on Smith for 2015. While the one-year bridge would merely serve as a Band-Aid for the time being, it allows Smith the time to earn back the organization's trust.

Branch's report included an interview with former NFL agent Joel Corry, who now writes for CBS Sports. Corry described the fifth-year option as "a no-brainer" for the 49ers, even at a projected price of $9.25 million in 2015: 

I wouldn’t touch Aldon Smith right now. You’ve got the fifth year option for him and they are going to exercise it. But more than the option, I would need to see him turn his life around a little bit more. Just have a little more comfort that he’s on the right track before I commit great pass-rusher money to him.

While a healthy raise from a $4.5 million cap hit in 2014, the extra year of 2015 would offer the 49ers and Smith more time to ride out the current legal situations. This option fiscally rewards the young star without GM Trent Baalke sticking his neck out too far. 

Branch also notes that this option year would keep Smith below the salary threshold of other star pass-rushers, including Green Bay's Clay Matthews and Dallas' DeMarcus Ware.

While Coach Harbaugh is impressed with Smith's progress, there's still much left to prove.

This scenario appears most favorable for both sides, if only as a short-term fix. Smith will finally be paid in accordance with his level of play, but he will still have to work for a long-term commitment. 

With a chip on his shoulder and something still to prove, the entire episode should result in a focused Smith for 2014. Conscious of his past demons and with his career back on track, Smith could find himself in a position to truly succeed on all levels. 

Should this be the case, the 49ers will finally have to break the bank to retain his services.

 

All statistics according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, while contract information was referenced from Spotrac. Tom Smeaton covers the San Francisco 49ers as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. For more analysis and opinions as the offseason heats up, follow on Twitter at @smeaton49

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