However, for a large part of the 2014 season, that linebacker group is going to be severely short-handed. In the case of NaVorro Bowman, it was a severe knee injury—unfortunate, but also unavoidable.
Aldon Smith once again refused to get out of his own way, and after getting hammered by commissioner Roger Goodell, the 24-year-old is officially out of do-overs in the NFL.
As Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports, Smith has been suspended nine games by the NFL to start the 2014 season.
For those wondering where that oddball number came from, ESPN's Ed Werder explains:
San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke released a statement, per the USA Today report:
Our organization has known this decision would come and we have prepared for it as a team. Aldon has taken responsibility for his actions and has continued to show growth personally and professionally. We will continue to support him, but it is time to put this matter behind us and focus on the season ahead.
Niners fans hoping for a suspension-shortening appeal can also put that thought to rest, because it isn't happening:
There's something of a silver lining for the team, however, as Ian Rapoport of NFL.com pointed out:
If you're wondering why Smith can be around the team after pleading guilty to DUI and weapons charges, while Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon can't after smoking marijuana, join the club.
Railing against the hypocritical morass that is the NFL's player discipline "policies," however, is a story for another day.
This is about Smith, who is down to his last "strike" in the league. It won't matter if the next suspension is for booze, bud or beating someone up. If he runs afoul again, he'll be looking at a Gordon-type ban.
In other words, Smith desperately needs to get his act together. Right now.
Of course, it would be nice if Smith had offered some inkling that he had any intention of doing that.
|Aldon Smith Police Blotter|
|6/30/12||Stabbed at Party, Charged with Illegal Possession of Assault Weapns|
|4/13/14||Detained after claiming to have a bomb at LAX*|
|* No charges were filed|
Since entering the NFL in 2011, Smith has spent more than a little time making appearances on police blotters. After his DUI last September, he entered alcohol rehab, missing five games in the process.
After leaving rehab, Smith told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group that his focus was re-joining his team and getting his life put back together: "Of course, I didn't want to be away from the sport I love. But it was good for me to get away and get my mind together and work, like I say, just to get to the positive spot I need to be at."
Smith promised that he was "making sure this never happens again," and teammate Patrick Willis told Inman that the locker room stood behind him:
When you have a guy such as Aldon and his kind of talents, the biggest thing we can do is let them him know we're here for him, that we're his teammates, but let him grow on his own. Sometimes going through what he went through, the last thing you want is a million people saying they know what's right.
The biggest thing is to be true to himself, keep a tight circle and understand if he wants to talk he can come to us.
It's a noble sentiment, but it's fair to wonder if the 49ers locker room feels quite so supportive now.
After all, it wasn't even six months after Smith left rehab that the airport incident occurred. Granted, no charges were filed, but in a post-9/11 world, telling an airport employee that you're in possession of a bomb is about as stupid as you can get without a prescription.
And that's the problem with Aldon Smith. On the field, he's a pass-rushing force, the likes of which we may have never seen in the NFL before.
However, off the field it's been one awful decision after another. Many of those decisions came even though Smith knew full well that he was in the NFL's cross hairs.
Simply put, that can't happen. This is Smith's last chance. If he gets it together, follows through on his treatment for alcoholism (which is a lifetime struggle) and stops associating with people who are inclined to stab him, then this may be the final misstep in what could wind up being a Hall of Fame career.
Smith is that good.
Or, Smith can learn from this what he apparently did from every other misstep: a fat bag of nothing. In which case, the clock is ticking on the transgression that could quite conceivably end his playing days before he even hits the prime of his career.
As a fan of the NFL (especially defense) and a decent (I hope) human being, I very much hope it's the former.
But given everything we've seen from Aldon Smith off the field over the past few years, I fear that we'll be heading down this road again soon enough.
And this time, the road is a dead end.
Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.