SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco 49ers know Aldon Smith still has plenty of work to do in order to repair his tarnished image and stay on track away from the football field.
They want to be an integral part of his self-improvement project, exercising their 2015 fifth-year contract option for the star linebacker on Friday. The team made the decision despite Smith’s long list of legal trouble that included an arrest at Los Angeles International Airport just more than two weeks ago.
San Francisco faced a Saturday deadline to decide on Smith’s immediate future, and general manager Trent Baalke suggested last week the team would keep the fearsome pass-rusher around for the near future at least — for 2015, "and ’16, and ’17 and ’18." The 49ers will provide Smith with the support he needs to deal with his rash of off-the-field issues.
Yet Baalke has made it clear there must be positive change, and soon.
San Francisco realizes Smith still could face a suspension from the NFL for his DUI last September, and is expected to look for depth at linebacker during next week's NFL draft.
"Well, that remains to be seen. You prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Baalke said of a potential suspension for Smith. "There are still a lot of things that are going to factor into that decision at the league level and the club level. We're working very diligently in the background trying to make sure the right decisions are made long term, not only for Aldon but for this club."
In his latest run-in with the law, Smith was arrested April 13 at Los Angeles International Airport. Police say the 24-year-old NFL star was randomly selected for a secondary screening and became unco-operative with the process, telling a TSA agent that he had a bomb. The district attorney has referred the case for misdemeanour consideration.
That followed Smith's five-game absence last season to undergo treatment for substance abuse after a September DUI arrest. In November, he pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon, stemming from a June 2012 party at his home. Investigators say several shots were fired, two partygoers were injured and Smith was stabbed. In the subsequent investigation, prosecutors say detectives found five unregistered, illegal weapons in Smith's house, including two Bushmaster rifles and an Armalite AR-10T.
Yet, what Smith brings on the field makes him one of the NFL's best at chasing down and pressuring quarterbacks.
Smith emerged as one of the league's most-feared pass rushers in 2012. He had a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks that year, but failed to record a sack in his final six games including the team's post-season Super Bowl run.
Smith finished with 8 1/2 sacks and 34 tackles in 11 games last season, making eight starts. His 42 sacks are second-most in the NFL since he entered the league.
He and former teammate Delanie Walker were named in a lawsuit last September filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court by a Northern California man who said he was shot at a party at Smith's house on June 29, 2012. The players charged a $10 admission and $5 per drink, the lawsuit said. Smith and now-Tennessee Titans tight end Walker were allegedly intoxicated on Smith's balcony when they fired gunshots in the air while trying to end the party, the lawsuit said.
Smith, selected seventh overall in the 2011 draft out of Missouri, had previously been arrested on suspicion of DUI in January 2012 in Miami shortly after the 49ers lost in the NFC championship game.
Baalke and the rest of the 49ers hope Smith will learn a lesson at last, and become a better person because of it. Smith said during a January interview with The Associated Press he was encouraged by his strides and confident he had made positive changes in his life.
"I'm a firm believer in the humanistic approach to everything. You continue to work just like you would with any family member," Baalke said. "We're a family. You don't just open the door and toss people out of it. You continue to work until they leave you no choice. That's what we're going to do. We're going to continue to work with him, we're going continue to find ways to support, not defend, we cannot defend the actions of others, all we can do is support."