When training camp hits and the preseason gets going, we'll pay close attention to the various position battles that will unfold. The battle to start at right guard, along with playing time at wide receiver and running back will be among the more prominent such battles. At the same time, a guy like Aldon Smith will be intriguing to watch in August, even though he seems just about assured of locking down one of the starting outside linebacker positions.
Over the course of last season, Smith's in-game performance focused almost exclusively on pass rushing. He came out of Missouri with strong pass rushing skills, and given that the lockout prevented him from working with the coaching staff, the 49ers had him focus on that in games rather than mix in too much stand-up OLB work. Smith and the 49ers achieved great success with that strategy as Smith was an absolute monster in the pass rush.
However, the team is looking at him as a long-term option replacing Parys Haralson across from Ahmad Brooks. We know he can rush the passer, but now we are looking to see how well he performs in the other aspects of the outside linebacker role.
Coach Harbaugh chatted briefly about Smith and his transition earlier this week:
With LB Aldon Smith last year, so much of his transition was just to be an outside linebacker. What have you seen out of him this year, this offseason so far?
"Been really good. That's somebody else who's really rising fast, doing a great job. He and [DT] Justin Smith are working really well together, a tandem there. The same Aldon that we saw last season, and even better."
What does he have to do to take that next step? He's had a great rookie year. What does he have to do to continue to develop as a player?
"Just what he's doing. Everyday he's working extremely hard. He's been very attentive in all these offseason sessions. I think he's pretty close to perfect attendance. I'd have to double check that, but not that we're keeping track. But he's doing a great job, he really is."
Aldon Smith had a chance to talk with the media a bit as well and he seems focused on the task at hand. I'm glad to see a guy who is a little bit peeved about losing out on Defensive Rookie of the Year. If that drives him a little further, all the better.
Smith seems to have the size, speed and overall athleticism to handle his business at outside linebacker. Even when just rushing the passer last year, you could see a lot of these skills. Of course, now he'll need to work these into every down play. He's got talented players to work with, and a strong coaching staff to help him. The situation is ripe for a break-through, but it will still make for an interesting preseason as we see how he does in covering receivers and running backs. The athleticism is there to take that step, but it's a matter of bringing it all together.