The 49ers are betting on the come with Aldon Smith
The 49ers spent their first pick in the NFL draft on a touted prospect from the University of Missouri, but not the one you might have expected. “I definitely didn’t know I was going to be picked at No. 7, or that they really had that much interest,” Aldon Smith said after becoming the Niners’ first-round surprise. “This is just amazing. I had no idea.” On that one, Smith can join the crowd.
Not many observers had the 21-year-old defender who’ll be asked to play a different position than he did last year as a sophomore in college to go near the top of the draft to San Francisco. Not ahead of his teammate at Missouri, quarterback Blaine Gabbert, a player the 49ers were believed to covet. Not ahead of a lot of other older, more-heralded, more-polished prospects.
But there Smith was late Thursday afternoon, going to the 49ers with the No. 7 overall selection, becoming the first name of the first round that had some saying, “Who’s that guy?”
In football terminology, this first selection of the Trent Baalke/Jim Harbaugh era might be called a “reach.”
But Harbaugh was quick to go the “best player available” route when he stepped to the podium to praise his first draft pick as 49ers head coach.
“The draft is full of good players, and we took the guy that we liked the most as a football player, as a person,” Harbaugh said “We think he has tremendous upside.”
And why, exactly, is that? The book on Smith is that he has great speed and athleticism, but comes to the NFL with only two years of college experience and will be expected to become a pass-rushing strong-side linebacker in San Francisco’s 3-4 scheme after playing defensive end in a 4-3 scheme at Missouri.
“The way he rushes the passer, the way he plays the run, his ability to play on his feet that he has done and we project him to be able to do,” Harbaugh listed as the reasons Smith is now a 49er. “You talk about playing predominantly in a 3-point stance, like he did in college. There were times he was on his feet, we could see it, so it’s just not a blind projection But there will be a learning curve.”
That’s the risk involved with this pick, that Smith is still years away from playing his best football for a team that needs an impact here and now from the seventh player selected in the draft. How smooth will his transition be into a two-point-stance NFL outside linebacker?
The upside is undeniable. While Smith is relatively raw and inexperienced, some call him a “beast” speed rusher who also can hold the edge and will enliven San Francisco’s lagging defense in an area it needs help most. The 49ers have been attempting to bolster their pass rush for years, and this might be the guy to finally add a discernible impact for a team that hasn’t had a player record a double-digit sack total since Andre Carter finished with 12.5 sacks in 2002.
“Obviously, we had to get better on defense, and he’s a guy with a lot of unique skill sets for what we’re looking for,” Baalke said of his first draft pick as 49ers general manager. “We had to add to the defensive side of the football and this is a young man that has versatility and the ability to line up at various positions. We feel very confident in the young man’s character and his ability on the football field.
“He has to learn a new position, we realize that, so there are going to be the growing pains. It’s going to take some time. But we feel very good that we had the value of this player judged fairly and he ended up going in the draft where this year’s allotment said he should go.”
That may prove to be true, but Baalke’s final words told the story: At the end of the draft’s opening day, the 49ers were left having to explain why they selected their first pick.