Refocused Aldon Smith a linchpin for 49ers' defense

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Aldon Smith is playing with a clean slate and a restructured contract, which both he and the San Francisco 49ers hope results in a rebirth, of sorts, for the sack-happy outside linebacker.

Two years ago, Smith missed five games while in rehab.

Last season, he served an NFL-mandated nine-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct and substance abuse policies in the wake of DUI and weapons charges.


"I respect what Aldon's doing and I respect ... the road he's on," said Niners coach Jim Tomsula. "Life throws things at you, man. Sometimes you cause them, sometimes you don't, but things happen. To me, the answer's always in you. The answer's not if it's going to happen or what's going to happen; the answer is always in how you handle it and where you go from there.

"Own it. Fix it. Let's go. The work, obviously the shape he's in ... the conditioning he's doing, I am really excited for Aldon."

The key then, obviously, is to keep him on the field with no off-the-field issues. Again.

The last time he played a full 16-game season, in 2012, Smith had 19.5 sacks and was an All-Pro. And the Niners went to the Super Bowl.

But that was a lifetime ago when you look at the 49ers' roster and Tomsula's coaching staff.

"When I look around the locker room, I just see a lot of new faces," Smith said. "That's all. If anybody underestimates us, that's their problem. But we're confident in ourselves and we'll be where we need to be when the season starts."

New defensive coordinator Eric Mangini was the team's tight ends coach last season, so he has a good memory of Smith working over his players in pass-rushing drills.

"You appreciate just the volume of moves that he has," Mangini said of Smith. "How easily he does things that it takes a long time for other guys to learn how to do what's natural for him, instinctual. That, just straight pass rush, he's got tremendous ability.

"And then if you can mix him with some games or combine with some blitzes or move him around to where he's in different spots, whether he's on the left or the right or inside, get to that point where now you can match him up with certain guys, I think that could be a good situation for us, too."

Smith is no doubt financially motivated to stay on the straight and narrow.

In March, he restructured his $9,754,000 salary into a series of bonuses. The key point was earning $322,150 for each game he is on the 53-man roster during the season, maxing out at $5,154,400. Add that to the $2 million bonus he'd get for either playing more than 50 percent of the Niners' defensive snaps or getting eight sacks, the more than $1.6 million in already-earned roster and offseason workout bonuses and his $1 million base salary, and Smith will have earned the entire original salary.

Of course, he'll have to do it with a new running mate on his left side.

Justin Smith retired this offseason and Quinton Dial has been running at right defensive end in the Niners' first-team 3-4 defense in the first two days of training camp practice.

"Anybody that's filling Justin's spot, we're going to have to create a chemistry with because that's the guy who's been beside me since I've been here," Smith said. "But people learn fast and we've got a good coaching staff and a good group of guys who make everything easy. So it will all work out.

"With all that depth, we have so many things we can do with it, so much talent. We've got the pass-rushers, the guys who can stop the run. We'll put it all together and we'll be able to rotate in and make sure we've got a fresh lineup every time."

Starting with a refocused Smith.