It was a bit of a surprise when the San Francisco 49ers selected Aldon Smith with the seventh overall pick in April’s NFL Draft.
Smith, a defensive end at Missouri, told reporters he wasn’t aware the Niners had that much interest in him, and assumed he’d slide a few more picks.
But Smith had made an impression on the 49ers.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke saw a terrific combination of athleticism and football ability in the 6-foot-4, 258-pound Smith, and envisioned him as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, a young guy who could rush the passer but be athletic enough to cover the field.
“We took the guy we liked most as a football player,” Harbaugh said in April, and referred to Smith’s long arms and a wingspan that is “Dwyane Wade-like.”
Added Baalke: “There’s a combination of traits that he has that are hard to find.”
In two seasons at Missouri, Smith was Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2009, with 60 tackles and 11 sacks. As a sophomore he played in nine games and had 48 tackles and six sacks, then announced he was coming out for the draft.
It was believed, however, that Smith would have a steep learning curve in adjusting from being a defensive end in a three-point stance to being a stand-up outside linebacker. He’s done both this season, with most of his work Sunday against the Lions coming at linebacker.
Yet six weeks into his first NFL season, Smith has tackled that learning curve the way he’s starting to tackle opponents.
Smith leads all 49ers in sacks (5.5), has forced a fumble and has 11 tackles. He’s especially been active the past two games, with two sacks each against Tampa Bay and Detroit.
Smith was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Week last week, and has been nominated again for his play against the Lions.
He says he’s still learning every day, but believes he’s contributing to a team that is 5-1 and leading the NFC West.
“I still feel like a rookie,” Smith told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. “But I feel like a rookie who’s making plays. … Now things are starting to slow down and I’m getting the hang of it a little bit.”
Smith also told Branch that playing alongside veteran defensive lineman Justin Smith – a fellow Missouri grad and first-round pick – has been a huge benefit, because teams often double-team Justin Smith, which leaves Aldon against a single blocker.
Said Aldon Smith, of being nominated a second straight time for Rookie of the Week: “It’s definitely cool,” he told the Bay Area News Group. “Give me some votes.”