49ers’ 2019 ‘Who Is?’ series: Linebacker Malcolm Smith

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Malcolm Smith finds himself in a precarious spot in 2019, possibly securing a starting job or winding up off the roster altogether. Niner Noise takes a look at his prospects for the season.

When the San Francisco 49ers inked veteran linebacker Malcolm Smith to a five-year, $26.5 million contract in 2017, they were hoping they’d get a high-caliber player channeling his former Super Bowl MVP ways and someone capable of revamping what was an inert and inept defense.

But Smith suffered a torn pectoral before he ever stepped on the field for the Niners in 2017, missing the entire season as a result.

OK, bad luck, perhaps. Yet Smith’s 2018 efforts weren’t particularly inspiring either. And by the year’s end, Smith had been relegated to backup duty, losing his starting linebacker job to a special teams contributor, Elijah Lee.

Malcolm Smith Defense & Fumbles Table
4 yr4 yrSEA57162691377422.01328349103
2 yr2 yrOAK31302270279514.022618640158
1 yr1 yrSFO1250000135221333
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/3/2019.


San Francisco made some changes at linebacker entering 2019. With Fred Warner already cemented as a key piece, the Niners inked veteran backer Kwon Alexander to a lucrative contract and also selected Arkansas rookie Dre Greenlaw in this year’s NFL Draft.

Warner and Alexander are dealing with some injury recovery this offseason, which opened up time for Smith to see first-team reps during OTAs.

Whether or not he can hold onto that role, however, is up for debate — something Niner Noise explores deeper in our “Who Is?” series.


Why Malcolm Smith Improves in 2019

Smith hasn’t been much of a coverage guy, instead known more for his run-stopping abilities. So the 49ers’ switch to a wide-9 base could do some good here.

By moving the strong-side defensive end towards the line of scrimmage, the SAM linebacker becomes more of a stack variety, inherently making him more interchangeable with the other two linebacker spots.

This move could help Smith, who never truly grasped the strong-side duties in coordinator Robert Saleh’s previous 4-3 Under defense.

Smith could be allowed to showcase more ranginess instead, having to worry less about coverage than he would have, previously.

And with fewer questions at linebacker entering 2019, aside from injury attrition, Smith’s attributes could be used to better effect.


Why Malcolm Smith Regresses

One could argue the 29-year-old Smith will never revert back to his 2013 form — the season in which he won those Super Bowl MVP honors with the Seattle Seahawks.

At this point in his career, Smith is already dealing with multiple seasons of mere so-so play. He wasn’t quite the fit with the Oakland Raiders between 2015 and 2016, despite them needing playmaking defenders, and his 2018 efforts with San Francisco were less than desirable, too.

It’s possible Smith’s best calling from this point onward is as an experienced, veteran reserve player.

There’s a good chance he winds up being just that in 2019.


Projected Role with the 49ers in 2019.

Smith’s roster spot this upcoming season is anything but guaranteed. The Niners renegotiated Smith’s deal during the offseason down to a one-year, $5.54 million contract. If cut, San Francisco would still owe Smith $4.2 million in dead money, so that alone is a good sign he’ll be on the 53-man roster.

But with the 49ers not exactly being in salary cap hell, it’s not a guaranteed roster spot for Smith either.

Assuming the Niners keep Smith for depth purposes, at least, he’ll likely serve as a reserve option to both Alexander and Warner, potentially retaining a starting SAM job, as was the case in OTAs.

Alexander is coming off a torn ACL suffered last year, so his health is of concern. Warner, meanwhile, is dealing with a knee issue. Greenlaw, while promising, shouldn’t be asked to be an immediate-impact player right away.

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So it’s probably a good thing for San Francisco to keep Smith this season, even if it’s just for depth. His experience and potential to revert back to solid playmaking ability are notable.

Even if his best chance is probably just as a backup at this stage of his career.

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