Before the latest Aldon Smith hoopla, the outside linebacker position was a moderate need for the San Francisco 49ers.
I'm not with this crowd—yet.
If the 49ers cut Smith before the draft, they'd need a replacement for him as badly as they need another high-caliber cornerback. And because pass-rushing is slightly more important than coverage, one could make the argument that OLB would indeed be priority No. 1.
If the 49ers keep Smith—which is what I expect—but don't pick up the last year on his contract, OLB becomes the third-biggest need on the team's draft board, jumping offensive guard.
The Niners' deadline to decide on Smith's fifth-year option is May 3.
Until that decision is made, expect to see draft experts mocking a pass-rusher to the 49ers in the first or second round.
For this article, I'm focusing on one pass-rusher the 49ers should target in each of the first three rounds. All three players have the athleticism to drop into coverage if needed and rush the passer from the edge.
Round 1: Kony Ealy, Missouri
Let me start off by saying I'm not advising the 49ers to draft Kony Ealy if Aldon Smith is still on the roster. That's not to say Ealy would be a bad pick, but both cornerback and wide receiver are bigger needs and the first round has multiple great prospects at both positions that San Francisco should consider.
Ealy reminds me of Smith coming out of college. At 6'4" and 273 pounds, he's already a dynamic speed-rusher.
Similar to Smith, the big concerns with Ealy are his lean frame and run defense. CBS Sports' Rob Rang had more on Ealy's weaknesses:
Ealy is prone to coming off the snap too high, making himself vulnerable to cut blocks and is a more effective pass rusher than run defender, at this time. While possessing the burst and balance to attack off the edge out of the two-point stance, Ealy looks uncomfortable dropping back into coverage and offers minimal experience in this area.
Smith has become an effective run defender since being picked by the Niners in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft. Under the tutelage of San Francisco's coaches, Ealy could improve that area of his game quickly.
The pass-rushing should come naturally to the Missouri star, just as it has for Smith. In the video above, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller tabs Smith as Ealy's pro player comparison. The fit makes too much sense for the Niners to pass on him if they're planning a Smith exit strategy.
Round 2: Kyle Van Noy, BYU
The 49ers would likely have to trade up in the second round to take Kyle Van Noy, but he'd be well worth it.
Van Noy played multiple positions—and multiple roles within those positions—at BYU. The 49ers could stick him at inside linebacker until NaVorro Bowman comes back and kick him out to outside linebacker as Smith's long-term replacement.
What immediately catches my eye about Van Noy are his instincts in space. He's sound in coverage and run defense. On top of that, he totaled 13 sacks as a junior in 2012. So why isn't he a first-round prospect? Here's Rang's take:
Relies on instincts and efficiency, rather than physicality. Beats blockers to the action, rather than taking them on shedding violently and isn't an explosive tackler. Projects best as a traditional outside linebacker in the 4-3 alignment because of this lack of take-on mentality, though he has shown the ability to get to the quarterback.
Essentially, Rang is arguing that Van Noy isn't a first-round athlete. And a 6'3" and 243 pounds, he's considerably smaller than Ealy.
If Van Noy wants to be an impact player in San Francisco's 4-2-5 nickel package as a defensive end, he'll likely need to bulk up a bit. However, he'd fit as a linebacker in any 49ers defensive package due to his instincts and versatility.
Round 3: Marcus Smith, Louisville
Marcus Smith is ready to contribute on passing downs right now. The Louisville pass-rusher had 14.5 sacks in his senior season.
The question is can the 6'3", 251-pound college star improve on his run defense and coverage?
Athleticism is not an issue. Smith is plenty fast. Right now, some are worried about his lack of experience as a linebacker in coverage and lean frame. NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki wrote this about Smith's NFL potential:
Smith projects as a pass-rushing, 3-4 right outside linebacker in the pros. Should contribute initially on passing downs and has eventual starter potential as his game becomes more well-rounded.
If Aldon Smith is active for the 2014 season regular season, Marcus Smith would compete with Corey Lemonier for the backup OLB spot. Both are decorated collegiate pass-rushers who need to work on their technique and strength.
With a year of bulking up and improving, I could see either starting for the 49ers in 2015.
With three third-round picks in the 2014 draft, Smith would be an excellent project selection for San Francisco. It wouldn't surprise me if he's the 49ers' pick if they focus on filling needs at cornerback, wide receiver and interior offensive line with their three picks in the first two rounds.