Malcolm Smith's return is big upgrade for 49ers' defense


Reuben Foster’s preliminary hearing on three felony charges is scheduled for Thursday, which means there could soon be some clarity on his future with the 49ers.

The 49ers tried to approach this offseason as if Foster would not be available. The club re-signed Brock Coyle, who started 10 games, including each of the team’s six victories. The 49ers signed veteran inside linebacker Korey Toomer and added promising BYU linebacker Fred Warner in the third round of the draft.

But the biggest addition to the 49ers’ group of linebackers is expected to be a player who has already been in the building for more than a year.

The 49ers’ highest-priced long-term free-agent acquisition on defense in the first two offseasons of the John Lynch-Kyle Shanahan regime was linebacker Malcolm Smith, who signed a five-year, $26.5 million contract on the first day of free agency in 2017.

The coaching staff raved about Smith throughout the offseason program a year ago and was devastated when Smith sustained a season-ending torn pectoral early in training camp.

“As a football player, not being able to do the thing you love and the thing you always dream of doing since you were a little boy is pretty difficult,” Smith told reporters recently during the 49ers’ offseason program.

“It was a challenging time for me personally but it was good to see our growth as a team throughout the year. I tried to be around as much as possible.”

Smith should be able to participate in organized team activities, which opens next week on the 49ers’ practice field in Santa Clara. As the 49ers entered the offseason, the plan was for Smith and Foster to be lined up as the starting inside linebackers. The two positions are interchangeable, but Smith was expected to play on the weak side, while Foster was lined up in the middle.

The 49ers felt good about combining the young and talented Foster with Smith, 28, a six-year veteran and Super Bowl MVP while with the Seattle Seahawks.

But the 49ers and Foster decided it was best for him to not participate in the early stages of the offseason program after he was formally charged with two counts of domestic violence and possession of an assault weapons. The accuser of the alleged domestic violence incident has since publicly stated, through her attorney, the allegations were based on her initial lies to police.

Smith and Foster never stepped onto the field together last season, so they did not have an opportunity to build chemistry. If Foster returns to the team, Smith said he hopes to provide leadership through example.

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