49ers: Who Is LB Malcolm Smith, Really? “I’m Going Deep”

Niners Live brings our A game on an all-out blitz assessment on the new free agent addition LB Malcolm Smith.

Our Niners Live assessment on Mr. Malcolm Smith, who signed a five-year, $26.5 million contract with the 49ers, includes a film study breakdown of his strengths and liabilities. Smith’s contract has $12 million guaranteed including a $7 million signing bonus. In each year of the contract there are per game roster bonuses. The 2020 and 2021 years are both option years (overthecap.com). We’ll also ask the tough questions: Did the 49ers overpay? Was he actually worth the money? Will he live up to his contract obligations? How does he really fit in new DC Robert Saleh’s scheme? Is he a liability in coverage? Was there a cheaper or better option?

On a Niners Live side note: Niners live recently discussed: How New DC Robert Saleh should Utilize his Defensive Talent.

Does the end justify the means?

Quite often in life we may make questionable decisions and ask ourselves this very question. So in this case, the end refers to Malcolm Smith consistently performing and maybe even outperforming his contract, and the means refers to how much we paid him to do so, and then asking the question: Did we overpay? Don’t get me wrong, Malcolm Smith has made some great plays over the course of his six-year career and can even use the term “Super Bowl Champion” on his resume. He was a key piece in that game-changing, stingy, suffocating, intimidating and extremely physical Super Bowl defense. The question is, will we see the same Super Bowl Champion player? Don’t answer that just yet….

Now granted, the 49ers aren’t hurting for cap space ( Field Yates NFL reporter for ESPN.com the 49ers have a league leading 73.9 million in cap space). It seemed like a no-brainer to bring in some much-needed help at linebacker (more than likely weak side WILL) as they convert to a 4-3, to clearly help improve that bottom of the league defense from the 2016 season (NFL.com). Smith does indeed possess the speed, football IQ, ability to make plays in space and properly shoot and fill gaps which bodes well (for all parties) when reading and reacting to developing plays on this revamped defense. Only time will tell if Mr. Smith will produce numbers equal to or greater than those of his contract obligations.

Will he be a good plug and play fit in new DC Robert Saleh’s scheme?

If by chance you’re unclear on the meaning of “plug and play”, stay with me and I’ll explain. There are a few things we already know: 49ers new DC plans to run a 4-3/4-3 under defense in San Francisco, the defense needs help, and Malcolm Smith at his best can be a playmaker having played both WILL and MIKE linebacker throughout his career. What we don’t know: will Robert Saleh be able to plug (insert him into this new look defense) and play (Smith add consistent value to the defense) him with little to no drop off. On the bright side, if indeed Malcolm Smith can jump right into this new 4-3 the 49ers will be running, and make plays in run support, coverage, and in the pass rush game, that alone instantly upgrades the defense and Smith’s value, as well. On a high note, Malcolm Smith, per Pro Football Focus, rated a 74.8 against the run (Pro Football Focus/Rotoworld.com)so we know he can tackle and be effective in the run support aspect of this new 4-3 scheme in San Francisco. Being that the WILL linebacker must force any run plays on his side back to the inside and even play counters or reverses and run plays down from his backside containment, Malcolm Smith may very well be a good fit. What I’m looking forward to seeing him doing, though, is cover, play the flats, and cover in space.

Is he a liability in coverage?

The three words quite frequently used to ask an important question in regards to linebackers are, “Can he cover?” Fast, smart, physical, size, pass rushing ability, good lateral movement and run support on the backside are all very key attributes to being an elite linebacker. But just as important, if not more important, is playing sound coverage.

I’ll get into some numbers and stats later in this article, but for now, let’s just discuss the importance of a linebacker in coverage, namely the WILL linebacker whose responsibility is often the flats and coverage. Now before you jump on YouTube to try and find highlights, keep in mind what you see is just that, “highlights”. Highlights are the high points of a player when they’re at their best and making plays. What isn’t shown in highlights is the not so good plays, the plays that weren’t made, or even plays where players get beat in coverage. My point, both highlights and stats tend to hide the truth at times.

Just as great stats don’t truly represent the full ability and potential of an athlete, sometimes bad stats don’t truly represent said player either due to the scheme, and or talent, around them. Malcolm Smith didn’t grade out very well in coverage in 2016, but in all honesty, the Oakland Raiders defense wasn’t very good in coverage either. We’ve seen multiple plays where Smith made plays on the ball and even had interceptions, but being in the right place at the right time doesn’t constitute or translate to coverage skills. Sound coverage in my eyes is having the ability to pick up and stay with a running back out of the backfield 15-20 yards downfield or even running with a slot receiver down the field or in space. We have yet to see much of this from Mr. Smith. Let’s hope now, that as a 49er, he grades out better playing the WILL linebacker in coverage than he did playing inside linebacker in the past.

Note: Was there a cheaper, just as qualified option in house? A la, Gerald Hodges?

Former 49ers LB Gerald Hodges wore #51, remember him? Well, whether you do or don’t, allow me to refresh your memory so to speak and possibly give an “aha” moment which may provide clarity for some. Gerald Hodges played safety in college at Penn State and also has played the WILL, MIKE, and has the talent, skill set and toughness to play SAM, as well. He was a jack of all trades to a degree. In the 2016 season, Hodges tallied 83 total tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.

The knock on Hodges, however, was that he lacks gap discipline/integrity and his over aggressiveness caused him to overrun running lanes and miss tackles which frustrated coaches. “I like his energy,” head coach Jim Tomsula said. “Every once in a while, I’m probably going to say, ‘Please, shh.’” And teammates, most notably NaVorro Bowman (The Press Democrat), echoed some similar sentiments regarding Hodges in the past. But later on down the stretch in 2016, the light bulb went off and Hodges’ game made strides. So much so, that he graded out with an overall rating of 82.4, run def 80.8, coverage 73.8 and pass rush 69.9 (via Pro Football Focus).

By comparison, Malcolm Smith’s overall rating is 49.7, which ranks at the bottom of all inside linebackers, 74.8 run def, coverage 43.8 and pass rush 64.4 (Pro Football Focus/Rotoworld.com).

As you can see, of the two linebackers, Hodges was rated higher in 2016. Now I didn’t present these numbers to you trying to sell or oversell Gerald Hodges; I did so to put things in perspective regarding how the 49ers spent their money on Malcolm Smith. I get that he is a former Super Bowl Champion and all, but in terms of getting your money’s worth, it seems the 49ers may have reached a bit with Smith. Only time will tell, though. To wrap this up, not only was Hodges the cheaper option at this position, he was the better and even more versatile of the two because he can play all three linebacker positions and would’ve also provided depth. Unfortunately, he was allowed to walk in free agency this offseason.

I’ll close with this:

Malcolm Smith cashed in pretty big signing with the 49ers for a five-year contract, and some fans even feel they overpaid for his services with this being the most lucrative contract of his career. Also, to note: Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com highlighted Smith’s contract as being one of the worst contracts in the NFL and went so far as to mention the word bust in the same sentence when referencing Smith’s contract. With that being said, he’ll need to produce numbers and make plays that warrant his deal. Needless to say, he’ll need to be the best he’s been thus far, but especially better than his 2016 season with the Oakland Raiders. Hopefully, he can return to triple-digit tackle form and maybe even bring some of that Super Bowl winning tradition and lock down defensive culture to the San Francisco 49ers locker room and on the field. That’s what is desperately needed to have any chance of returning to the greatness that once was synonymous with the 49er name.

As always, keep your eyes wide open, 49er fans. Niners Live will be watching with you. #eyeswideopen and often imitated but never duplicated… Go Niners.  

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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Kevin Mitchell new Staff Writer at Niners Live. Co-Author, Editor NinersLive.