When he’s on the field, there certainly are no questions about Aldon Smith.
The 6-foot-5 outside linebacker is force as a pass rusher and his speed, power and long arms make him a test for even the best offensive tackles. In 43 career NFL games, Smith has 42 sacks.
In a preseason rundown of the NFL’s top 10 pass rushers this week, Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated ranked Smith No. 5, behind Miami’s Cameron Wake, St. Louis’ Robert Quinn, Denver’s Von Miller and Houston’s J.J. Watt.
“Smith is on an early pace to distinguish himself as one of the best sack artists ever,” wrote Burke.
But Burke also knows what every 49ers fan knows: Smith can’t get to the quarterback from the sidelines.
As the 49ers prepare to open training camp – with the first practice set for Friday – Smith’s status is in doubt. After pleading no contest to drunken driving and misdemeanor weapons charges last week, Smith seems destined for some type of suspension from the NFL.
Smith received a sentence of three years probation and time on a Sheriff’s work crew as part of a mandated 235 hours of community service. But that won’t keep him off the field in 2014; a league suspension would, and, according to Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group, suspensions for personal-conduct violations under NFL commissioner Roger Goodell have been for one to eight games. First-time offenders for similar offenses have received suspensions for between one to three games.
So, when the 49ers open their season Sept. 7 against the Cowboys, it’s possible they’ll be without Smith and injured inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, two of the team’s most dynamic defensive playmakers.
The Niners hope that once Smith gets beyond this incident, he can get back on track to becoming the pass rusher he was in 2012. That season, he had 19½ sacks in 16 games. Last year, because of injuries and time off in a rehabilitation facility, he had 8½ sacks in 11 regular-season games.
Niners general manager Trent Baalke said the team will “support any action the NFL may take with respect to this matter” while continuing to support Smith and hoping he can “grow personally from this experience.”
Smith issued a statement after last week’s sentencing that said, in part: “I have learned a great deal and have worked very hard to become a stronger individual and better person. I look forward to continuing on this path.”
That untroubled path could take him to the top of the NFL’s pass-rushing list. He ranks behind only Jared Allen (45½) in sacks since the start of the 2011 season and – because he plays on a talented defensive unit – is in great position to keep getting to quarterbacks.
In three postseason games last season, Smith had 3½ sacks and 11 tackles while being consistently disruptive.
As head coach Jim Harbaugh said in January, Smith is a force.
“On the field, he’s been outstanding,” Harbaugh told Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group. “Teams that want to block Aldon Smith one-on-one are whistling Dixie. That’s the way he’s playing right now.”
But, he needs to be on the field to earn sacks and accolades. Beginning this week, he gets to start working toward that goal.