Given that I shade a little bit more toward the "pessimist" side of this offseason, I think there are a few things that absolutely need to go right for the San Francisco 49ers to take a step forward from 8-8. I don't doubt that they can, but I do think the team is facing some serious obstacles.
One way to circumvent a couple of these big obstacles is to have an excellent pass rush. If we can put pressure on the QB, that makes it a whole lot easier for the CBs on the team to grow into their positions. Additionally, it alleviates the pressure on the ILBs to cover TEs (if that's what our new defense will do) now that Patrick Willis has moved on.
Hence, my excitement that Aldon Smith has been in the news quite a bit recently. Yesterday, our own James Brady had some good things to say about Aldon Smith's offseason, especially in light a fun article from Can Inman.
Of course, all the caveats apply: OTAs basically mean nothing. We really cannot draw serious conclusions from them without being on the field, and even then they aren't super helpful. Without pads on, it just isn't the same. I played high school football: during the spring, I was an all-star. When the pads were on, I was a special teams all-star who got a decent amount of playing time at safety. It's just a different game with pads on.
But, what's really exciting is the intensity with which Smith is approaching the season. I think James puts it well, "while I'm not keen to call Smith a leader at this point in his career, there's no doubt that when he kicks it into gear, the younger players will follow suit."
Like James, I think it's too hasty to be calling Smith a leader. He's faced a lot of adversity during his career, and basically all of it has been his own fault. The man needs to learn responsibility and self-control. People who occupy leadership positions cannot, by the nature of leadership, expend all their energy on themselves. Given the problems that Smith is facing, he needs to look after himself.
One great way of doing that, however, is by focusing on football. By letting the game be his distraction, Smith can devote himself to staying away from trouble. It's hard to tell from my armchair reading articles over the internet if this is, in fact, what Smith is doing. But by all accounts, including the drastic restructuring of his contract, Smith seems to be trying to stay out of trouble.
How well this will translate into on-the-field production is another question. Back when Justin Smith was questioning his place on the team, we posed the question about what would happen if the Smith brothers were separated. Would Aldon produce without Justin?
Certainly, Aldon has the skill set to make his own sacks. He can routinely beat double teams through a combination of speed and strength. It's not as if he needs a stunt to get a sack.
But, without Justin, the defense will have a tougher time controlling an o-line. Justin's just that good of a player. Aldon will need every advantage he can get. In the past, his biggest problems have always been off-the-field issues affecting his play on the field. If he really can keep up this sort of intensity that he has been displaying in OTAs, then he may just be able to provide that pass rush after all.