The 49ers have insurance for Aldon Smith. And they utilized it last season when Smith took a leave of absence and missed five games while seeking treatment for substance abuse.
The 49ers selected outside linebacker/defensive end Corey Lemonier in the third round. He played in pass-rush situations and veteran Dan Skuta played on first and second downs to compensate for Smith’s loss.
With Smith out of action, the 49ers won road games at St. Louis and Tennessee, home games against Houston and Arizona, and a game against Jacksonville in London. They went 5-0 during the time in which Smith was away.
The 49ers have the franchise’s best pure pass-rusher since the days of Charles Haley, whom the 49ers traded to the Dallas Cowboys. It was a move both coach George Seifert and owner Eddie DeBartolo would later say they regret. DeBartolo called allowing the Haley trade one of his biggest mistakes as an owner.
If the 49ers do not pick up the fifth-year option on Smith by the May 3 deadline, then this could be his final season with the organization. The 49ers can secure Smith’s rights for 2015 with the $9.754 million option. (It’s guaranteed for injury only.)
If the 49ers do not pick up the option but later decide they want to keep him around, they would have to give him a long-term contract or place the franchise tag on him. The franchise tag for linebackers this season is $11.455 million and figures to be even higher next year. And that would mean less cap dollars devoted to other positions on the 49ers' roster.
The NFL draft takes place after the 49ers must make the decision on Smith's fifth-year option. With six draft picks among the top 100 selections, the 49ers will have enough opportunities to add to their depth at outside linebacker.
And the 49ers can supply even more insurance for an organization that may not be able to rely on having their young, dominant pass-rusher around for a long time.