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Aldon Smith Is the Biggest Wild Card in the 2011 NFL Draft

Danny Flynn@FlynnceptionSenior Analyst IFebruary 8, 2011

MIssouri's Aldon Smith is this year's big gamble
MIssouri's Aldon Smith is this year's big gambleDilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

When Missouri DE Aldon Smith announced his intentions to leave school early for the NFL back in January, it didn’t exactly send shock waves through the world of sports.

Smith’s announcement wasn’t anywhere to be found on the front page of the USA Today sports page the following day, it wasn’t the lead story on Pardon the Interruption and it sure wasn’t a heavy topic of interest on any of the thousands of nationwide sports radio shows.

The lack of attention shouldn’t have been a shock to Smith or any of his supporters, considering he was, after all, a relatively unknown commodity.

Maybe that’s what you get for playing at Missouri, a school that’s been consistently successful on the field of play over the last few seasons while remaining relatively invisible in the eyes of the nationwide sports media.

Or maybe, just maybe, that’s what you get when you choose to leave school early after playing only two seasons of college ball with a resume filled with blank pages.

Whatever the reason for Smith's lack of respect, the powers that be decided to ceremoniously give him the tag of “sleeper” after he confirmed his intentions to turn pro.

"Sleeper"—a word that means so many different things to so many different people when it comes to the NFL Draft and a word that’s turned into both a curse and a godsend for many prospects of years past.

Aldon Smith—officially a sleeper.

It does seem a bit odd that the public would give him that title considering that it was they who were in fact the ones sleeping on him.

Unlike his flashy defensive line cohorts of the 2011 class like Auburn’s Nick Fairley or Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers, Smith has no major awards to wave around. He was given no stage comparable to the BCS National Championship game to shine on and to show off his talents.

What Smith lacked in major popularity during his short college career, he certainly made up for with production—16 sacks worth of production to be exact.

The 6'5’’ 260 lb. super pass rusher burst onto the Big 12 scene as a redshirt freshman back in 2009 when he accounted for 11.5 sacks and a whopping 19 tackles for a loss.

As just a freshman, Smith put up numbers most star seniors would dream of.

And from there the legend was born. The former 3-star recruit was all of a sudden a hot name around Big 12 circles by the time the 2010 season rolled around.

"Freak" was a term that you would hear being thrown around a lot in regards to Smith and his abilities.

After starting hot, tallying three sacks in the first three games of the 2010 season, it looked like Smith was well on his way to breaking onto the national scene. Unfortunately the injury bug derailed those hopes and the Tiger DE came up sackless in six out of his last seven games.

What started off as such a promising campaign ended with questions of what could have been.

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Now it's up to Smith to forget about the past and trying to answer questions of what he could have been in college. Instead, it’s time to start focusing on what he possibly could be in the NFL.

It's a question that involves a lot of depth when you take into account we still don't really have a grasp on the most fundamental part of this whole equation—what position is Aldon Smith going to play in the pros?

At 260 lbs., Smith is sitting right on that boundary line which separates 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 rush linebackers. His superb athleticism would make him a likely candidate to make the switch to a stand up rusher in the pros, but as we’ve seen many times before, that could be a risky move.

We’ve seen that scenario work out the right away as was the case with guys like DeMarcus Ware; we’ve also seen it take some time and patience like with Kamerion Wimbley. And yes, we’ve also seen the switch result in a miserable failure.

Remember that Vernon Gholston guy, Jets fans?

But therein lies the gamble: You have to weigh the risk-reward of it all.

If Smith makes the move to 3-4 outside linebacker, he has a chance to be the next great NFL pass rusher (à la LaMarr Woodley or Clay Matthews).

In other words, if it clicks and all goes according to plan, Smith will likely turn out to be one of the five best players to come out of this class, and it probably won’t even be up for debate. He has elite potential, but with potential always comes danger. The danger of getting burned.

Aldon Smith is the ultimate wild card of the 2011 NFL Draft. He's this year’s big gamble.

It’s now up to the personnel people around the league to sharpen their pencils and start doing their homework on this young man.

Scouts are going to love what they see from Smith at the combine as he’ll probably test through the roof.

And if you watch any interview or conversation with Aldon, you’ll come away very impressed with how well-spoken and polite he is, so there’s no reason to believe the interview portion of the process shouldn't go smoothly.

What it will all come down to in the end is how Aldon Smith is viewed in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to the NFL Draft, perception is reality, and for all the talk of value, a guy like Smith could really theoretically pop up anywhere depending on which team falls in love with his potential.

The starting point would seem to be the Houston Texans at No. 11.

New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who is planning to bring the 3-4 system to the Texans, would love to have a player the caliber of Smith coming off the edge for his new defense.

Whatever label you want to stick him with—defensive end, outside linebacker, sleeper, freak and so on—the true identifier is simply "wild card."

We don’t know what Aldon Smith will become in the NFL, because at this point we still don’t know exactly what he is.

Luckily for us and the NFL talent evaluators, we've got a few more months to try and figure it all out.

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