The San Francisco 49ers released veteran linebacker Malcolm Smith on Tuesday, shaking up the depth at linebacker heading into the regular season. Niner Noise takes a look at how Smith’s absence impacts the final 53-man roster.
When the San Francisco 49ers made former Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders linebacker Malcolm Smith the first free-agent signing of the tenure for general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan back in 2017, it garnered many an unimpressed response from fans.
Sure, Smith was once a Super Bowl MVP, but by and large was considered an unimpressive player who looked better because of the other players around him in Seattle.
He was quickly exposed as being a pretty mediocre starting piece during his two years in Oakland, even if the 226 total tackles and four sacks seem to tell a different story. Leaving the vaunted defenses of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” era proved detrimental, and Oakland finished with bottom-of-the-league defenses in both of his seasons.
Still, the 49ers saw someone who knew the single-high, Cover 3 defensive scheme they were bringing in with Lynch and Shanahan, and promptly signed Smith to a five-year, $26.5 million contract, including $12 million guaranteed. The linebacker would go on to miss the entirety of his first season in San Francisco with a pectoral injury, and was placed on IR during training camp prior to the 2017 season.
He finally did see the field in 2018, but played just 12 games, registering 35 total tackles and zero sacks. The 49ers response was to restructure his deal this past March, a move that set the table for what eventually happened Tuesday, via NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo:
As I’ve noted with a few preseason 53-man roster projections, Smith was already likely on the bubble for making the roster anyway. The contract restructuring made that more likely, and then injuries and little playing time in the preseason so far suggested the nail was in the coffin, ready to be hammered down.
That said, this fully opens the door for a few players, who might have been on the outside looking in, to edge themselves onto the 49ers roster.
While the starting linebacker slots seem to be essentially set, with second-year man Fred Warner patrolling the middle, while new signing Kwon Alexander handles the weak-side linebacker role, Smith’s departure seems to ensure rookie Dre Greenlaw has a more than outside shot at taking over as the team’s primary SAM linebacker.
That’s a position that won’t see much of the field, however, given how often the 49ers will spend in non-base personnel.
Beyond that, it looks like there will be a few players vying to fill depth roles at the position, namely incumbents Elijah Lee and Mark Nzeocha, free-agent David Mayo and undrafted rookie Azeez Al-Shaair. To my mind, that’s four players fighting for anywhere from two to three slots, depending on what direction Lynch and Shanahan choose to go with their linebacking corps.
In any ideal world, the number would probably be set at five, with a setup similar to how many NFL teams use their backup offensive lineman. In that case, most teams carry a swing tackle and either a swing interior lineman, or another guard and a backup center.
Extrapolated to linebackers, this would have the 49ers looking to have a backup middle linebacker and someone who could handle both the strong and weak-side roles, along with special teams action for both players. Given the current state of the roster, this would mean Mayo sticks around, and then either one of the other three.
The 49ers roster may not be set up for an ideal world situation, but it seems that Mayo plus one of Lee/Nzeocha/Al-Shaair is the likely outcome, with Al-Shaair being the option who possesses the most upside. Lee and Nzeocha have both been around for as long as Lynch and Shanahan, and at this juncture, they are the more known quantities.
The timing of this move suggests that the 49ers were planning to cut Smith when final rosters were announced this weekend, but they did the old veteran a solid by releasing him now, allowing him, as Garafolo noted in his tweet, to sign elsewhere immediately, getting a jump on free agency in the process.
If nothing else, this only solidifies the question of whether Smith was ever a real option for the 2019 49ers.
Turns out the answer was a resounding “no.”