At his best, Aldon Smith is one of the NFL’s best pass rushers.
In just three pro seasons, the 49ers’ outside linebacker has given San Francisco’s defense a dynamic element. In his rookie season of 2011, Smith had 14 sacks, then followed up with 19½ in 2012 and 8½ in 2013 while missing five games.
But Smith’s future with the 49ers now is a bit cloudy, following the latest in some troubling off-the-field incidents. The 49ers had been considering a long-term contract extension for Smith, whose initial contract expires at the end of the 2014 season. But this past weekend, Smith was taken into custody after an alleged incident at Los Angeles International Airport, and was booked on charges of making a false bomb threat.
Niners general manager Trent Baalke put out a statement to the media Sunday saying: “We are disappointed to learn of the incident today involving Aldon Smith. As this is a pending legal matter and we are still gathering the pertinent facts, we will have no further comment.”
The 49ers, of course, will let the matter take its legal course. It could be that Smith eventually will face no charges or not be subject to losing any playing time via suspension in 2014 – and that the 49ers will go forward on coming to a longer agreement with No. 99.
But for both the short and long term, the 49ers at least have the luxury of having some depth at outside linebacker.
In fact, with second-year player Corey Lemonier and veteran Dan Skuta, the 49ers have a player who can grow into being a strong NFL starter and another who played very well last season with the team.
Lemonier, a third-round pick of the 49ers in 2013 from Auburn, had 17 sacks in college and NFL scouts loved his potential as an NFL pass rusher. At 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, Lemonier has both good size and speed, and when Smith was out of the lineup for five games in 2013 for another off-the-field incident, Lemonier teamed with Skuta to fill in ably. In fact, the 49ers went 5-0 over that span.
In playing 16 games – with no starts – Lemonier had 12 tackles, a sack (which resulted in a safety) and a forced fumble.
During one four-game stretch early in the season, when Lemonier recorded his only sack, Lemonier was credited with 17 quarterback hurries. So it’s possible that with more experience and playing time, Lemonier could blossom as a starter and be able to step into perhaps the NFL’s best linebacking corps along with Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman (when he’s expected to return at midseason from injury).
Head coach Jim Harbaugh said he liked what he saw of Lemonier as a rookie.
“Pass rushers are hard to find,” Harbaugh said during the season. “It’s exciting, seeing him do the job he’s doing.”
And former 49ers safety Donte Whitner said during the season that he sees Lemonier as a future standout.
“He has all the mechanics, all the makeup, he has the talent to be a good pass rusher in the National Football League,” Whitner told the media. “He just has to get more experience and he’ll get better and better.”
Of course, if the 49ers do lose Smith for any amount of time in 2014, that would spread them thin; especially with Bowman already out. So, they might consider taking another young outside linebacker in the draft, or bringing in a bargain-priced free agent.
But one thing seems evident: Lemonier will make an impact as a defender over the next few seasons, either as a valuable backup or starter. And he gives the 49ers some very nice insurance.