May 3 is the deadline for the team to pick up Smith’s fifth-year contract option. This would ensure Smith stays with the team through the 2015 season, at only $9.754 million. In a vacuum, that’s a no-brainer decision. When you have the option to lock up a player who has 42 sacks in 43 games, you jump on it.
Smith, however, seems determined to make the decision more complicated.
Smith was arrested and charged with making a false bomb threat at Los Angeles International Airport on Sunday. He was released on $20,000 bail, but it’s only the latest in a long line of transgressions in Smith’s NFL career.
Last season, of course, Smith was arrested on suspicion of DUI, and ended up spending time in a rehab clinic before returning to the team. Therefore, the fact that Smith was reportedly drinking before his airport arrest is troubling, per Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com (via NBC Sports). It didn’t play into his actual arrest, but it’s not a great sign considering his past history.
Smith also was arrested for DUI back in January 2012, charges that were later reduced to reckless driving.
Smith’s also due to appear in court on April 29, related to charges related to the more recent of the two DUIs, as well as charges of illegally possessing an assault weapon. These were weapons purchased legally in Arizona but are illegal to possess in California.
It’s a headache, because if Smith wasn’t as talented as he is, there would be no decision—he’d be cut right away. Instead, the 49ers have to come up with a decision in only three weeks on what to do about Smith’s future with the team.
There are issues outside of Smith’s situation that could impact the issue, as well. This hasn’t been a great offseason for 49ers and the police, though Smith’s situation is by far the most serious.
Colin Kaepernick was briefly involved in an incident in Miami that was first reported by TMZ as a possible sexual assault. No charges have been filed, and Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee reports that Kaepernick wasn’t even at the suite when the incident occurred. Even if, as it appears, Kaepernick isn’t at fault for anything, it was still a week of nasty headlines the 49ers could have done without.
Then you have starting cornerback Chris Culliver, charged with two misdemeanors of hit and run and felony possession of brass knuckles, per ESPN.com. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, but the case is far from finished.
You could make the argument that, considering the increasing extent of the public-relations problem, the team shouldn’t pick up Smith’s contract. Indeed, Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network finds it hard to believe the team would pick up the extension, simply due to the lack of knowledge between now and then.
That’s understandable, but there are a couple of sticking points here.
We should find out before the May 3 deadline what Smith is being charged with in the Los Angeles case. A bomb threat can either be a misdemeanor or a felony, per Tracy Kaplan of the San Jose Mercury News. Neither is ideal, of course, but a misdemeanor charge would indicate a much less serious situation—essentially, another example of Smith making a boneheaded decision, rather than a serious risk of jail time.
Therefore, it’s really hard to make a call on what the 49ers will do until we know the extent of the charges in Los Angeles, as well as the results of the April 29 court case. The 49ers do not have all the information that they will have when making the decision, and there’s no reason to rush it.
If they do use the option, it doesn’t guarantee that Smith will be on the team in 2015. The contract only becomes guaranteed at the beginning of next season’s league year, in March 2015.
The 49ers could use the option now and be able to release or trade Smith before next year without any cap ramifications. They’d take the public-relations hit, but they would continue to have control over Smith for the next two years.
If they don’t use the option, and Smith’s trouble ends up being less serious than initially thought, they could use the franchise tag in 2015 to keep Smith around. The problem with that is that 2015 has a large number of potential free agents, per Spotrac.
The 49ers could find themselves in a situation where they have to decide whether to use the franchise tag on Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati or Smith. In such a situation, where all four players hit the market at the same time, the 49ers would be hard-pressed to keep all of them. They could get hit with bidding wars on each player, ruining their salary structure.
With the financial implications, it might make sense for the team to bite the public-relations bullet and exercise their option. The worst-case scenario if they do is Smith continuing to have legal issues and the team having to cut him before the 2015 season. The best-case scenario is Smith riding out this wave of legal issues and continuing to be an elite player at less-than-elite prices.
The worst-case scenario if they don’t exercise Smith’s option would be Smith having another stellar on-field season, with off-field issues reducing significantly, and then getting signed to a huge contract by a pass-rush needy team.
The best-case scenario would be for Smith’s issues to scare off other suitors, allowing the 49ers to sign Smith to a low-value contract, while Smith avoids jail time or massive suspensions.
Putting it all together, it probably makes sense for the 49ers to use Smith’s fifth-year option for now. They’ll take yet another public-relations hit in the short term, but it gives them almost a full year to decide on Smith’s fate for 2015 and beyond.
One thing is clear, however—no matter what the team decides, I wouldn’t want to be their PR specialist when the decision comes down.