Malcolm Smith's return could be critical for 49ers defense

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Other than the big, splashy move to sign cornerback Richard Sherman, the San Francisco 49ers spent the bulk of their free-agent dollars and their most valuable draft capital bolstering the offense this offseason.

That approach was based, at least in part, on the fact that the Niners believe their defense will improve simply by being healthier than it was a year ago. Depending on how some training camp battles play out, the 49ers could have as many as five defensive starters in their opening-day lineup who finished last season on injured reserve.

With the exception of Sherman, there might not be a more important defensive piece returning to the fold than linebacker Malcolm Smith. After San Francisco handed Smith a five-year, $26.5 million deal in 2017 free agency, Smith looked poised to battle rookie Reuben Foster for the starting weak-side linebacker job last preseason.

That battle didn't last long, though, as Smith suffered a torn pectoral on Aug. 7 that ended his first season as a Niner before it started. It was the first time in Smith's seven years in the league that he didn't play at least 12 games and the first time since he became a full-time starter that he missed more than two games in a season.

"Some challenging times for me personally but it was good to see our growth as a team throughout the year and I tried to be around as much as possible," said Smith of last season’s absence.

Smith, fully recovered, has been participating in the first two phases of the team's offseason program and is expected to be full-go during the organized team activities that began on Monday. Smith's return doesn't come a moment too soon given the amount of uncertainty the 49ers have dealt with at linebacker since he suffered that pectoral injury more than eight months ago.

In the time since that injury, the 49ers attempted to trade and eventually released franchise stalwart NaVorro Bowman, lost Foster to an early-season ankle injury before getting him back and watching as he suffered various minor injuries in nearly every game and saw Brock Coyle undergo offseason shoulder surgery. At one point, the injuries at linebacker were so far-reaching that former 49ers safety Eric Reid moved to the weak side spot.

After the season ended, the issues kept mounting as Foster was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession in January and then on suspicion of two felony counts related to domestic violence and another for an illegal firearm in February. Foster's case could get some clarity on Wednesday when a Santa Clara County judge is slated to rule on whether any or all of those felony charges will proceed from the preliminary hearing stage to a jury trial.

Given all of those issues, Smith's return has given the Niners a much-needed sense of stability at an integral position on coordinator Robert Saleh's 4-3 defense.

"We miss (Foster's) spirit but at the same time we understand the magnitude of the situation," Smith said. "So you can understand, you guys have guys you're friends and co-workers with, people that are going through things and you kind of have to let that take its course."

As the 49ers await resolution on Foster's legal situation and for Coyle to recover from surgery, Smith is the one proven commodity they have for their two interchangeable inside linebacker positions. While Smith was signed to play the weak-side spot, he could work in the middle as others take turns on the weak side. Or Smith could stay on the weak side while the likes of rookie Fred Warner and free-agent addition Korey Toomer get reps in the middle. If nothing else, Smith is the most qualified to handle the communication responsibilities.

“WILL and MIKE are the same thing to us," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "MIKE just talks more because he communicates to the defense and everything. In terms of what we ask those two to do there's very, very little difference."

Even if Smith doesn't have to play in the middle and handle the calls, the Niners will look to him to play a leadership role. Along with Sherman and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, Smith is one of the most experienced expected starters on defense. Reuniting Smith with Sherman -- they spent their first four seasons together in Seattle and have known each other since their high school days in the Los Angeles area -- gives the Niners two defensive leaders with a deep knowledge of Saleh's defense, which is nearly identical to what they played in Seattle.

"I stayed close to Richard throughout the years," Smith said. "We came in together. We learned a lot, we did some things together in Seattle. It’s something we always revisit and talk about how we want to bring the same spirit with our play here. Hopefully it’s something we can build on."