49ers Struck Gold With Rookie Class

Aldon Smith made biggest impact as part of team's best draft class in years.

When the 49ers selected Missouri’s Aldon Smith with the seventh overall pick in last April’s draft, one talent evaluator wrote that the pass-rush specialist could be an immediate impact player in the right system.

Smith’s combination of speed, moves to get around blockers, upper-body strength and ability to use his hands, wrote Doug Farrar of Yahoo.com, gave Smith “the tools” to be a good player.

Almost nine months later, it’s easy to say Smith’s impact on the Niners was even better than good.

The 6-foot-4 rookie with the wide wingspan is among the top candidates for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award and finished just a half-sack shy of the league’s rookie record of 14½ sacks. And, with 6½ sacks in his final four games, Smith Thursday was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month for December.

Matt Williamson of Scouts, Inc., wrote for ESPN that Smith, in fact, is his choice for the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year – over Denver’s Von Miller – calling Smith “fantastic.”

Smith is just one member of a 49ers rookie class that had an enormous impact on San Francisco’s 13-3 turnaround season. The team’s April draft reaped huge rewards and gave the franchise an infusion of young, fresh talent to complement veteran holdovers and free-agent additions.

As Matthew Barrows of the Sacramento Bee wrote Friday, this rookie draft class is one of the team’s best in years. In all, he wrote, nine rookies appeared in regular-season games, with the most productive being Smith, an outside linebacker/pass rush specialist; fullback Bruce Miller, a fullback converted from defensive end; backup running back Kendall Hunter; and cornerback Chris Culliver. In addition, safety Colin Jones and defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs played well on special teams.

Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh, going into the start of training camp, thought it might be hard for rookies to make an impact this season because of the lockout and the fact they weren’t able to get together with coaches, study the playbook and participate in practices with veterans.

“The idea in my head was that they were at a real disadvantage going into training camp,” Harbaugh told Barrows. “That veteran players who knew the routine, knew the new systems, had played in other systems, et cetera, would be way ahead.”

Yet Smith and his classmates made immediate – and continuous – contributions throughout the season. And, when the Niners open the playoffs Saturday, Jan. 14, in a divisional-round game at Candlestick, Smith, Miller, Hunter, Culliver and the rest will be keys to helping San Francisco beat the Saints (should they win this weekend) or the winner of the Giants-Falcons game Sunday (should New Orleans lose to the Lions).

Smith’s ability to rush the passer, in fact, has added an extra dimension to a defense that already had terrific playmakers in Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

Pro Football Focus ranked Smith No. 4 among all NFL rookies, behind Von Miller of the Broncos, QB Cam Newton of the Panthers and offensive tackle Tryon Smith of the Cowboys.

Williamson of Scouts, Inc., however, rated Smith even above Miller, whose production declined late in the season because of injuries.

Though Smith isn’t a full-time player yet – he plays on passing downs – Williamson predicts Smith “is just too good not to be on the field full time.”

“Aldon Smith is already one of the best pass rushers in all of football,” wrote Williamson. “Only four players in the league had more sacks than Smith’s 14. He is fantastic.”

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