Draft analysts, football personnel and 49ers fans were all taken aback.
How can one productive season as a defensive end at the University of Missouri translate into a top-10 selection? More so, can he even make the switch to a 3-4 outside linebacker at the NFL level?
Smith wouldn’t agree with such sentiments—any player with All-World talent believes in his innate abilities, regardless of draft position.
Surely enough, Smith proceeded to rack up 14 sacks, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and a safety during his rookie campaign. The 49ers used him solely as a pass-rusher—true—but one cannot deny the sheer dominance he displayed in that role.
Then came the next hurdle.
Can Smith even make the transition to an every-down linebacker? Will his talent be supported by the necessary football IQ and discipline to defend both the run and the pass?
The incredulous detractors, while honoring appropriate skepticism, were wholly inaccurate in their expectations.
Pro Football Focus awarded Smith the No. 3 overall ranking among 3-4 outside linebackers for his tremendous production (membership required). He earned the second-highest rating for pass rush and the fifth-best rating for run defense.
In tangible numbers, Smith recorded 19.5 sacks, 66 tackles (three for loss), one interception and three forced fumbles. He pressured the opposing quarterback a total of 69 times and missed only three tackles all year. Speed, strength and total long-armed domination were his good friends.
Ball-carriers of any kind were simply no match for this second-year wrecking ball.
Yet, we are all fully aware of how far Aldon Smith’s production fell in the absence of, or with a hobbled, Justin Smith. Injured shoulder or not, Aldon did not register a single sack after his teammate’s injury in Week 15, a drought that extended throughout the playoffs.
So, with a fully healthy supporting cast—including draft additions Cornellius Carradine and Corey Lemonier—can Aldon Smith attain heights beyond the 19.5-sack mark?
In reference to the title, yes—his ceiling is unlimited.
Like his redshirt sophomore year at Missouri, Aldon Smith played injured for the latter part of 2012. It was his first season as a full-time starter. The experience and conditioning he could have developed in college instead came at the NFL level.
And we really must not underestimate the detrimental effect of a torn labrum that had him on the injury report since Week 12, according to NFL.com.
I reported on Total Access: #49ers OLB Aldon Smith underwent surgery for a torn labrum a few weeks ago. Was on Injury Report for 5 weeks.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 15, 2013
Smith was quite literally operating with the use of just one arm. He couldn’t utilize his patented violent hand movement and shoulder drive when rushing the passer.
There just wasn’t any way he could break Michael Strahan’s all-time sack record. The weekly cortisone shots simply stopped working.
That’s why the mark of 22.5 sacks is well within his reach this time around.
Justin Smith will be back at full health come Week 1, per Rotoworld. He’ll also have a big-time backup in Tank Carradine, perhaps the most talented pass rusher is this year’s draft.
No. 94’s fully operational presence on the field will free up Aldon Smith to realize his pass-rushing potential.
Carving a trajectory from 14, to 19.5, to 22.5 sacks—and more—is not just logical, it’s expected. The same goes for a greater proficiency in run defense that already improved so dramatically from his rookie to his sophomore year.
If an injury or natural wear and tear ever materialize, then Lemonier and Parys Haralson are there as healthy rotational substitutes. Smith can get the necessary rest and make up for missed time with one of his patented multi-sack games (see: Week 11 vs. Chicago).
It’s not like he didn’t produce six of them last year.
Here’s to 23 and counting in 2013.
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