In giving Aldon Smith more playing time this season, the 49ers hope to get even more out of last season’s dynamic rookie.
But in looking for more, might they actually get less?
Last season, after all, Smith basically had one role: go get the quarterback. That role he filled to perfection, getting 14 sacks while playing just 49 percent of the team’s defensive snaps (506 of 1,037), according to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.
This season, the plan is to make Smith a full-time linebacker, taking the starting job of Parys Harralson. Because the 49ers coaches loved what they saw in Smith in 2011 – they raved about his athletic talents – they believe he can make the transition to three-down starter, and that by being on the field more, he can make even more of an impact in his second year.
It makes only sense, right? More plays equal more impact.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio last week told reporters he believes Smith can make the transition to every-down outside linebacker in San Francisco’s 3-4 defense. Smith also would continue to line up as a pass-rushing defensive end in the nickel defense.
“He can become a full-time player,” Fangio said. “Last year, the season worked out for him basically the way I envisioned it. He played in the sub packages. Along the way, he was getting a lot of practice at outside linebacker.”
Haralson, meanwhile, was strong against the run last season on a team that was very good at stopping opponents’ running games all season. It made a perfect combination, with Haralson in the base defense and Smith coming in as a special weapon on passing downs.
Why mess with something good? Why not stick with what worked last season?
Because Fangio and his coaching mates believe Smith is a special talent. More will be more, they reason.
Now, Smith will have much more on his plate. He’ll have to learn pass coverages, perfect his drops and recognize receivers’ pass routes. Plus, he’ll be on the field the whole game. Might the whole switch clutter his mind and take away his speed and explosiveness late in games?
The Niners don’t think so.
“If it turns out that he doesn’t warrant the job with his play, then he’ll go back to that (being a pass-rush specialist),” Fangio told Branch. “But I think when you have a player of his ability you’ve got to do anything and everything you can to get him on the field more.”
Niners defensive end Ray McDonald believes the coaches are right. He sees Smith as a talent who will be even more productive with more playing time.
“Fourteen (sacks) can turn into 20,” McDonald told Mike Sando of ESPN. “When you’re just a situational player, you’re coming off the bench kind of cold and you have to warm back up. When you’re always out there, you are always warm. You can set your moves up more.
“It was the same thing for me, just coming off the bench and starting off cold. You don’t really get into your rhythm until the third or fourth quarter.”
Sando notes, too, that two players have made the similar switch from pass-rush specialists to full-time defensive starters – Miami’s Cameron Wake and Denver’s Elvis Dumervil – and had their sack totals improve.
For his part, Smith is eager to get the chance. He has no hesitation.
“Hopefull my stats will increase because I’m in a lot more now,” he said during mini camp. “If anything, my stats will go up.”