Here at Niners Nation, we're presenting a series called "90-in-90". We'll be looking at every player on the 49ers offseason roster, one player per post, from now until the start of training camp.
Heading into the 2012 season, one of the questions facing the 49ers was how Aldon Smith would do as he transitioned into the role of an every-down linebacker. He had excelled in 2011 in an almost exclusively pass rush role, setting the 49ers rookie single season sack record with 14.0. Heading into 2012, the plan was to expand his role to play virtually all snaps.
It's safe to say, Aldon Smith took to the expanded role. He has plenty of room for growth, particularly in coverage, but we can call 2012 a successful follow-up to his rookie season. Smith finished the season with 19.5 sacks and 49 tackles, and was an absolute force on the line.
That being said, the season ended with a stretch of six straight games without a sack, including all three playoff games. Smith still made his presence felt, but he was not able to close the deal on sacks, and we can point to two reasons for that.
The first is the loss of Justin Smith against the Patriots. The "Smith Brothers" were a dynamic force through much of the season, but once Justin injured his triceps, the pass rush took a noticeable hit. And of course, we also learned after the season that Aldon suffered a torn labrum, for which he reportedly had surgery in late February or early March. Combine those two together, and his lack in production to close to the season becomes less of a surprise.
Why he could improve in 2013
There is no doubt that Aldon Smith is a pass rushing monster. However, with each year, he has a chance to learn additional tools of the trade to improve as a pass rusher. While he has the raw athleticism to overwhelm a lot of offensive linemen, at some point he will need to add additional moves to his arsenal. If he can do that sooner rather than later, he could turn into the no doubt best pass rusher in the league. He is on the verge of becoming the best in the league, but additions to his arsenal will only help.
As an overall linebacker, he could show improvement in 2013 with a boost in his coverage work. He's proven solid against the run and great when rushing the passer. In coverage though, we can look for a nice boost in his game. It will be interesting to see what kind of work he has done this offseason, and will do in training camp to improve his coverage skills. If he can improve that area of his game, he becomes one of the best outside linebackers in the game.
Why he could regress in 2013
The pass rushing skills will be there this year, but there is always the concern about double teams. If Ahmad Brooks or whomever the third outside linebacker is behind Brooks can make the opposition pay for those double teams, they will slowly go away. I would view regression as not showing improvement in his pass coverage skills. If he put up a season similar in nature to 2012, I would view that as a regression. That's not to say another 19.5 sacks wouldn't be great. Rather, it's the overall game that I would view as a regression. There is still room for growth, and I could argue that if you're not getting better, you're getting worse.
Odds of making the roster
Obviously he makes the roster. The question in this part is more about who else makes the roster behind Smith and Brooks. Will we see them rotate in with any frequency, or will it be Aldon and Ahmad getting virtually all the work? It would be nice to have a third linebacker who could effectively spell Smith or Brooks each week. Imagine if you could get Ahmad Brooks some breathers from time to time? Having relatively fresh options throughout the game would be quite the boon for this defense. That will be something to track as the season approaches.