Yesterday I covered the 49ers secondary issues as they relate to younger players taking the "next step" . However, I am under the belief that the front seven's ability to get to the quarterback plays a major role in the secondaries ability to succeed.
Last season the 49ers got some real solid pass rush from Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. However, outside of Travis LaBoy they were unable to put a lot of consistent pressure on the quarterback from the linebacker position; the more traditional pass rush specialists in a 3-4 defense.
San Francisco spent the seventh pick of the 2011 NFL Draft on ultra talented but extremely raw Aldon Smith from Missouri. A lot of people questioned the pick and called it a "reach". We do know one thing for sure: Aldon Smith must contribute in 2011 for San Francisco's defense to take the next step.
There are a couple major hurdles Smith needs to overcome in order to make an immediate splash in 2011. First, he needs to make the transition not only from college to the pro's but from defensive end to outside linebacker. In the past we have seen players struggle in transitioning from the line to the middle four (see; Aaron Maybin).
Secondly, Smith didn't have the opportunity to work with coaches during organized team activities or mini camps during the off-season. This could really hurt his maturation process early on.
Finally, the 49ers do have more experience options at the outside linebacker position heading into the 2011 season. Parys Haralson and Ahmad Brooks will get a lot of field action and an ability to preserve their "starting jobs". Even with the probable loss of Manny Lawson, San Francisco will also bring in a veteran outside linebacker to compete; either retaining Travis LaBoy or bringing in another player.
Aldon Smith has the chance to be an absolute beast at the linebacker position for San Francisco. He has a tremendously high ceiling and is a physical freak. His ability to "punch at defenders" and get leverage was awe inspiring at Missouri, Smith made some really good offensive linemen look pretty darn bad. A 2009 game against Oklahoma State comes to mind. Despite not acquiring a sack, Smith beat Russell Okung a few times around the edge and put pressure on the quarterback. His wingspan is just ridiculous. Additionally, Smith is extremely fleet of foot coming around the edge.
Here is a scouting report from Mocking The Draft
Few pass rushers have length like Smith and know how to use it. Beats blocks with a good punch and extension to disengage. Shows excellent knee bend, which allows him to dip under offensive tackles when he's working to the outside. Is still developing as a pass rusher. After coming out following his sophomore season, there are parts of Smith's pass rush that are raw. More than anything, he's a speed rusher to the outside. Is still developing counter moves and working to the inside.
This pretty much mirrors what I said above and what I saw in college. He has a nice ability to get the offensive linemen off balance, probably due to superior athletic ability and a darn good technique. I had stated previously that Smith is pretty raw, however, he is much more competent in technique than what you would expect from a player who only saw two seasons of action in college.
At 6 foot 4 inches and 262 pounds Smith is ideal for the outside linebacker position in a 3-4 defense. What he lacks is experience playing in that role. There is a lot more to rushing the quarterback in that role. First, you have to worry a lot more about play recognition and secondly you have to adjust accordingly in order to fill the gaps up the middle. Another aspect that Smith really didn't have to worry about at Missouri was dropping back into coverage. I am sure that he has the ability to do so, but we need to see him capable of doing that in real game situations.
Will He Make An Immediate Impact?
I personally believe that Aldon Smith is a dark horse candidate for defensive rookie of the year, right up there with Von Miller. Normally, I would have Patrick Peterson on this list as well, however, corner is a difficult transition and most players struggle their rookie season. Pass rushing is a fine art, but it isn't as a great of a transition as corner.
Initially we will see Smith in as a pass rushing specialist, this in order to slowly transition him to be more of an all-around outside linebacker. Like I said before, the lockout really hurt his progression in certain aspects of the game. Smith's athletic ability should enable him to be an immediate force in the pass rush game. Smith has great technique and recognition of the field. This will enable him to get to the quarterback on the outside.
Additionally, Smith's numbers were down in 2010 because he faced a crazy amount of double teams as a Junior. This is something you are not going to see with Ray McDonald and Justin Smith in the front three and Smith playing rover in the 3-4 outside linebacker role.
As I noted in a previous article I think Smith will end up being the "jack of all trades" as the season moves forward in 2011. Once he gets comfortable in coverage, Smith will play a variety of different roles in the 49ers defense, his athleticism enables San Francisco to move him around. You will see him lineup as a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker, but you will also see Smith lineup as an end on short distances. Smith is solid in the rushing game as well, and will be an upgrade over Ray McDonald there.
I think you can expect Smith to record between 5-8 sacks in 2011 and improve from there with some more NFL seasoning. I am extremely high on this pick, especially after watching more game film following the draft. He probably won't be a full-time starter immediately but will get a lot of playing time. After a couple weeks I fully expect Smith to be in the starting lineup and be close to a three down player.
During the draft in April I had the honor of being interviewed by The Pulse Network. I talked about a variety of different 49er related things, however, there was a nice amount of coverage on the pick of Aldon Smith. You can listen to that interview here for a larger understanding of what I expect from Smith in 2011.