It certainly could be perceived that exercising the 2015 option for the troubled pass-rusher at $9.75 million less than three weeks after his latest arrest is an undeserved reward. However, in reality, the 49ers’ decision Friday to grant Smith's option was the smart decision.
It keeps them in control of his contract. Not exercising the option would have been counterproductive.
The 49ers can pull the option and they can trade Smith. The option is only guaranteed if he suffers a major injury in 2014 that would affect the 2015 season. Had the 49ers not exercised the option, Smith, 24, would be set to become a free agent after the 2014 season. If that scenario played out and the 49ers decided to place the franchise tag on Smith next winter, his 2015 salary would be in the $12 million-13 million range.
It would have not made any football sense had the 49ers not exercised this option. Allowing Smith the opportunity to go to free agency next year could have been looked at as a reward. The 49ers are ultimately saving money by using the option and doing the best thing for the franchise.
If Smith’s off-field troubles continue this year, the 49ers can pull the option and move away from him. The 49ers have spoken to Smith on multiple occasions since his April 13 arrest at Los Angeles International Airport for a fake bomb threat. The team has made it clear giving him the option is not a reward, and they have major expectations for Smith moving forward.
The 49ers want to help Smith, as general manager Trent Baalke explained last week. They will stand by him until he gives them no choice but to move away.
The 49ers likely waited until eight hours before the option deadline to make Smith understand the ramifications, but also to show the public that they carefully considered this decision. This wasn’t a simple circumstance, but in the end it was really the only call San Francisco’s brass could make. The only risk here would be seeing Smith get his act together and see another team enjoy the fruits of the 49ers’ growing pains with Smith.
If the 49ers don’t pull the option, they will have one less front office issue next year. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, receiver Michael Crabtree and guard Mike Iupati are all entering the final season of their contracts. Not worrying about Smith gives the 49ers one less franchise-tag option.