The San Francisco 49ers, a laughingstock of an organization for the past decade, will enter the 2012 season with huge expectations, after their surprising run to the NFC Conference Championship ended with a heart-wrenching loss to the eventual champions, the New York Giants.
More importantly, this is an organization that now has direction, under the stable leadership of Jim Harbaugh and general manager, Trent Baalke.
Jim Harbaugh's influence on this organization can't be overstated enough, but Baalke's presence has surely gone unnoticed by almost everyone outside of the Bay Area.
Baalke's draft selections over the last two years have been excellent to say the least, especially his selection of Aldon Smith in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
While 49ers fans were clamoring for a quarterback, possibly Blaine Gabbert, the other Missouri product, Baalke instead went unconventional and selected the talented pass rusher despite the dismay of analysts and fans alike.
Aldon Smith proved management correct after having one of the best rookie seasons for a defensive lineman/linebacker.
Smith fell short of Jevon Kearse's rookie record of 14.5 sacks, with an impressive 14 sacks of his own despite playing most of the season in a situational role.
The scary thought is that Aldon Smith could get even better in 2012, thanks to his versatile skill-set.
Aldon Smith played as a situational pass rusher in his lone season, but expect a starting nod for the former Missouri product at the outside linebacker position (OLB) in 2012.
As many witnessed, the 49ers played Smith with his hands to the ground rather than rushing him upright. This was likely due to the restrictions of the lockout, but it was known that Smith played as a defenisve end at Missouri.
The move last season should give Smith the confidence he needs to make the switch to OLB next season. Smith has the necessary speed, and more importantly, the length to pester the top offensive linemen in the league.
With the league becoming more pass-oriented by the minute, having a presence on the outside is crucial. His speed for a 6'4'' frame is unbelievable, which should make the switch to the outside a bit easier for the 22-year-old.
As I stated before, Smith played in situational downs, and usually rushed the passer with his hands in the ground. The 49ers will likely place him full-time at the OLB position in 2012, but if that experiment fails, having a back-up plan is assuring for Harbaugh and co.
The Niners coaching can at least take comfort in knowing that Smith has had success in this situational role. If he can continue racking up double digit sacks, this won't be an issue for the 49ers faithful.
What makes Aldon so special at the defensive end spot is his array of pass rush moves. Smith can beat offensive lineman with his quick first step, but his bull-rush was the move that caught many eyes last season.
Smith can easily create separation with his length, but his strong upper-body allows him to flash his underrated strength, despite his rather thin frame.
The Monday Night game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was evidence of this. That televised game against the Steelers not only put the 49ers on the map, but really highlighted Smith's ability to get after the quarterback.
Smith didn't play a lot of snaps inside at defensive tackle with the 49ers in 2012, but his college career at Missouri showed that he is capable of such.
This will only occur in the 49ers sub-packages, as the team employs a traditional 3-4 scheme where a mammoth nose tackle is usually required, though this was not the case last season.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio requires his inside players to be somewhat athletic. With his strength and athleticism, Smith could surprise interior offensive lineman in certain sub-packages.
This is the area where Smith needs the most improvement.The 49ers could have Smith serve primarily as a pass rusher but his physical abilities could allow him to be special in this area. Smith's length and speed, especially in short area situations, could help the 49ers immensely.
The 49ers have phenomenal coverage linebackers in All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, but if Smith can drop back in coverage, it would confuse offenses to no end.
Smith has the physical abilities to excel in coverage, but he will have to improve in the mental aspects of the game. While instincts alone could serve him well, this is a defense that relies on communication.