San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke’s pick of Aldon Smith a defensive end from Missouri he planed to turn into an outside linebacker in SFs 3-4 defense was not met with much fan enthusiasm. In fact, Smith’s selection as the seventh player taken in the 2011 NFL Draft was the first big surprise of the draft. Smith was rated high, but nobody expected the Niners to take him with the seventh pick, especially after showing zero interest in him leading up to draft day.
The 49ers had been desperate for an edge pass rusher for years and Smith’s selection was seen by many as a reach. The 49ers didn’t even have to start Aldon Smith for him to put together one of the best seasons a rookie pass rusher has ever had in the NFL. Smith was the teams designated situational pass rusher. His job, enter the game on third down and other obvious passing situations and rush the passer from his familiar DE position he played in college.
Smith was dominate in this role coming just 1/2 sack short of the all time rookie sack record. Smith added two postseason sacks to go along with his amazing 14 in the regular season. The 49ers brass has maintained all along that they envisioned Smith as a starter in 2012. With the team giving fellow OLB Ahmad Brooks a six year, $44 million deal, the 49ers have along with inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman a young, lethal group of LBs.
Smith will replace veteran Parys Haralson in the starting lineup. Haralson, a solid but unspectacular player is good against the run and setting the edge for the 49ers. Smith, who played only a handful of snaps at OLB as a rookie, will have to adjust to his new role quickly as a three down player.
With Haralson now coming off the bench Smiths first and second down role will change but his role on third and obvious passing downs won’t necessarily. Look for the 49ers to continue to move Aldon around and for him to play with his hand in the dirt at DE plenty. Instead of bringing a designated pass rusher off the bench in these situations as they did with Smith last year. The 49ers can bring in Haralson who at this point is better in the finer points of the game, and shift Smith to DE to rush the passer.
I’ve heard a lot of noise from Niner Faithful throwing out some crazy numbers when it comes to Aldon Smiths 2012 potential. I have to admit, I agree the potential for Smith getting even better and destroying his rookie output given the sheer increase in playing time alone. Fans should be cautioned about expecting much more from him. 14 sacks is an incredible amount for anyone, whether your playing full time or not. A marginal improvement can be reasonably expected but don’t anticipate Smith shattering his rookie sack numbers.
Instead, Smith will go through some sort of adjustment period as he transitions to more of an OLB. Expect some growing pains as he learns the finer details of playing from the stand up. It will be interesting to see how his coverage skills progress and how fast he can be relied upon in space.
I don’t think defending the run will be a problem for Aldon. He’s showed the ability to shed blockers and get up field both north and south as well as displaying fine lateral movement. Vic Fangio and Jim Harbaugh will probably ease him into the role even this year. I don’t think we’ll see a whole lot of Smith in space out in pass coverage. The better he looks in different aspects of the game, the more comfortable the coaching staff will be in opening things up. Just like the team withheld from sending Navarro Bowman in coverage very often last season, instead opting to go with Patrick Willis in space, a similar adjustment could be in store for Smith’s first season as a starter.
It’s hard to imagine the 49ers defense getting any better than it was last season. But the fact that Aldon Smith, one of the teams most exciting and productive defensive players last season, will have his role dramatically increase is exciting. The 49ers young, athletic, and super fast LB group will only get better. The leash is not only coming off Smith, expect Willis to have an even bigger year this season now that Bowman has a year under his belt and can be trusted more in coverage.
Smith’s impact on the defense will not just be felt by his sack numbers. His 37 tackles last season will go way up now that he’ll be in the game during running downs. But more so, as a pass rusher who strikes fear in opposing offenses, coordinators now have to game plan for Aldon Smith, full time. Just as they do Justin Smith and Patrick Willis. With Aldon, Bowman, Brooks, and Ray MacDonald, teams have a whole lot to plan for trying to ward off the 49ers improved front seven in 2012.