49ers’ 2018 ‘Who Is?’ series: Linebacker Malcolm Smith

SAN DIEGO, CA - OCTOBER 25: Malcolm Smith #53 of the Oakland Raiders returns his interception during the first quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on October 25, 2015 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - OCTOBER 25: Malcolm Smith #53 of the Oakland Raiders returns his interception during the first quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on October 25, 2015 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Malcolm Smith missed all of 2017 with a pectoral injury but could be a major figure this season. Niner Noise’s 2018 “Who Is?” series breaks it down.

The 2017 San Francisco 49ers were desperately changing out the 2-14 roster they inherited from the year before. And a big part of the many moves made was to land former Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders linebacker Malcolm Smith in free agency.

And that’s what happened. San Francisco inked Smith to a hefty five-year, $26.5 million contract that offseason.

Bringing Smith aboard made plenty of sense. The Niners averaged 4.8 rush yards against in 2016, and Smith’s solid run-stopping abilities would shore up a serious position of need heading into last season.

Plus, he was an understudy of newly minted 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who was copying the same defense in which Smith thrived with Seattle and earned Super Bowl MVP honors back in 2013.

Malcolm Smith Defense & Fumbles Table
4 yr4 yrSEA5716269137942712.08349
2 yr2 yrOAK3130227027951104.018640

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/29/2018.

But then Smith suffered a torn pectoral in training camp, landing him on injured reserve and ending his first year in San Francisco.

The 49ers dealt with plenty of linebacker attrition in 2017, at one point even forced to experiment with one-time starting safety Eric Reid down into a linebacker role. Paired with then-rookie Reuben Foster‘s six-game injury, it’s easy to see how the Niners missed Smith a season ago.

Yet all that changes in 2018. Foster is back and no longer has to worry about serious repercussions from his off-field issues, the 49ers inked Korey Toomer in free agency and also drafted BYU’s Fred Warner in Round 3.

What does all this mean for Smith moving forward?

Why Malcolm Smith Improves in 2018

For starters, staying healthy will be an improvement in itself. Fortunately, Smith isn’t exactly injury prone, so one can look at his 2017 setback as just that.

Prior to that, though, Smith went through some pretty lackluster years with the Raiders between 2015 and 2016. According to Pro Football Focus, his overall yearly grades were minus-11.4 and minus-8.0 those years, respectively, with some serious deficiencies in pass coverage.

The good news, though, is Smith graded out positively in both pass coverage and run-stopping abilities between 2012 and 2013 — his prime years with the Seahawks. And while his 2014 efforts weren’t at that level, Smith will be returning to the ideal defense in which he thrived not too long ago.

Why He Regresses

Smith might already be on a downward trajectory that started after his back-to-back standout years with the Seahawks. And it isn’t as if the Raiders were using a completely different defensive alignment his two years there under former defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

On top of that, Smith’s run-stopping percentage in 2016 with Oakland was 76.0, per Pro Football Focus. That’s not bad, per se, but it ranked 25th out of 28 qualifying inside linebackers and is by no means elite.

Combine that with Smith’s issues in pass coverage, and the regression question will largely hinge on exactly how the Niners deploy him. It’s possible Smith winds up being tasked with more of the MIKE duties this season, acting as a clean-up, of sorts, while letting Foster do most of the playmaking at the weak-side (WILL) spot.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers /

San Francisco 49ers

Expected Role with the 49ers in 2018

During minicamp, the Niners employed Smith in a first-team rotation with Warner at the MIKE spot. One shouldn’t read too far into these things, as it’s not uncommon to see higher draft picks get time with first units. But it’s not out of the question to see San Francisco focusing more on its future than an aging veteran.

Granted, Smith is just 28 years old. It’s not as if age is a factor here.

But one should remember Smith came aboard as an upgrade needed at the time. With the amount of depth now available at linebacker, is Smith becoming something of an excess commodity?

Perhaps not, as Warner will take time to develop. And cutting Smith would result in a cap hit of over $8 million in dead money for 2018 — simply too much to swallow, even for the cap-rich 49ers.

If there is a rotation at MIKE, Smith probably winds up being the player on base downs. Warner, who excelled in coverage at BYU, might take away some snaps in sub packages.

That probably allows Smith to focus more on his strengths anyway, allowing him to make the key run-stopping plays at the second level.

Next: 10 things 49ers fans need to know before 2018 training camp

And if it works, the Niners defense should be much better this season because of it.