The 49ers just announced they have parted ways with inside linebacker Derek Smith. The 33-year-old Smith led the team in tackles from 2001 to 2005, but during the last two seasons struggled with muscle damage in his left eye that affected his depth perception. Smith also was scheduled to earn more than $3 million this season. "Decisions like this are a difficult part of a great business," coach Mike Nolan said in a statement. "Derek has been an important member of the 49ers, and you don’t make these kinds of decisions without battling the emotion that is natural when you are dealing with a player that has done so much for your organization."
Smith and Nolan enjoyed a very good relationship. In fact, Smith re-signed with the team following the 2005 season in large part because he respected Nolan's direct, no-nonsense approach to running the team. Smith was originally a third-round selection of the Washington Redskins in 1997. He joined the 49ers in 2001 and finished the season with a team-high 126 tackles, according to the coaches' tally. Smith would finish with similar numbers in each of the next four seasons.
During the 2006 season, however, Smith developed a weakness in the muscle that moved his left eye up, down and to the left. As a result, he had trouble zeroing in on ball carriers and his tackle total fell. He had surgery to correct the problem a year ago, but he continued to be bothered by the issue this season. Smith, however, still played well enough to appear in 15 games this season at Ted linebacker and finish fourth on the squad in total tackles.
Who will replace Smith? The position calls for a larger-bodied player who can take on blocks to allow fellow linebacker Patrick Willis to swoop in and make the tackle. Brandon Moore had the first shot at the job last summer, but coaches grew frustrated with him and eventually moved Smith into his spot. The 49ers will add depth at the position, either through free agency or the draft.
Later today Smith issued a statement that indicated he would try to continue playing in the NFL. “I enjoyed my time with the 49ers over the last seven years. It is unfortunate that we did not accomplish what we wanted to during that time. I wish the team the best of luck, and I hope they get to where they want to be soon. In the meantime, it is time for me to move on and find another team in the NFL.”
-- Matt Barrows