The San Francisco 49ers will be without star outside linebacker Aldon Smith for the first nine weeks of the regular season, as the NFL came down hard on the troubled linebacker Friday afternoon.
Smith’s hefty nine-game suspension without pay comes just one day after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell penned a letter to team owners outlying his plans to implement harsher punishment for violation of the league’s personal conduct policy.
Many experts estimated anywhere from a six- to eight-game ban for Smith.
In a statement released today, general manager Trent Baalke addressed Smith’s suspension with an eye towards the future.
“Our organization has known this decision would come and we have prepared for it as a team. Aldon has taken responsibility for his actions and has continued to show growth personally and professionally. We will continue to support him, but it is time to put this matter behind us and focus on the season ahead.”
The 49ers will now be without two of their premiere defensive players through the first half of the season. Linebacker NaVarro Bowman remains on the PUP list to open the season as he continue to rehab from serious knee injury sustained in last years NFC championship game.
During Smith’s four game absence last season, while he voluntarily sought treatment for substance abuse following a September DUI arrest, the 49ers employed a tandem of linebackers Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier to fill his role.
On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio hinted the duo may again be called upon to play the same role as last season, with Skuta taking the field for base downs and Lemonier coming in as a pass rush specialist:
“There’s a good chance that could be the way, yes. It’ll be some combination. It won’t be one guy.”
Preparing for a long suspension, Fangio has used the preseason to evaluate his alternative options at outside linebacker, giving players Aaron Lynch and Chase Thomas a look as well:
“All the guys that may play for him, Skuta, Lemonier, Lynch, Thomas, all those guys have been getting a lot of reps so they’re all ready to go. It’s more of an issue when it happens in the middle of the season, just thrown on you like it happened last year. And then there’s no time to adjust, you just go.”
Both Lemonier and Lynch have looked impressive through the first four preseason games this year. Lemonier, who will most likely be used exclusively in pass rush situations, leads the possible replacements with two sacks while also notching seven tackles and a forced fumble.
Lynch has tacked on 30 extra pounds during the offseason in preparation for his first NFL season, and has looked tenacious at the line of scrimmage. Lynch has one sack in three games, but has registered a number of hurries and has found a way to get his hand on the ball by deflecting passes at the line.
While the majority of Lynch’s play has come deep in preseason games, the first-year player out of South Florida has still shown flashes of skill and athleticism that could give him the chance to crack the rotation and see some early playing time.
Despite the 49ers young talent at the outside linebacker position, Smith’s absence will still assuredly hurt the team.
Smith has looked particularly dominant during training camp and through the preseason, citing a better lifestyle and physical preparation for his increased production:
“I’m in the best shape I’ve been in, coming into a camp. And my mind is probably in the best spot it’s been in. So I’m feeling great.”
The 49ers will give their new outside linebacker committee a chance to make a statement during the season opener at Dallas on Sunday, September 7.
Smith will be eligible to return to the team on November 16 when the 49ers visit the New York Giants.