Where he fits in: Aldon Smith

Seven of the 49ers' past eight first-round selections in the NFL draft have become immediate starters and remain core members of the team as it is built today. But for Aldon Smith to follow in that trend, the upstart from the University of Missouri has both some growing and transitioning to do at a position he didn't even play in college.

That position is outside linebacker, and that is what the 49ers want to make out of their talented newcomer who, at age 21, comes to San Francisco as the youngest player on the team.

But the Niners will expect Smith to grow up in a hurry. For years they have needed to upgrade their pressure from the edge defensively, and they are looking for Smith to become the impact pass rusher that many who have been brought in during recent years before him failed to become.

So Smith will fit into the mix in San Francisco's 3-4 defensive scheme immediately at outside linebacker, where the team hopes he will eventually become a permanent fixture for years to come.

And hopefully even sooner than eventually.

"He's a guy with a lot of unique skill sets for what we're looking for," Niners general manager Trent Baalke said. "There are a lot of qualities to like in him. We're not looking at this as a project. This is a guy that has a lot of talent that we're going to get on the field and get into the rotation as quickly as we can."

The 49ers have expected no less from their first-round picks in recent years. The team's 2008 first-rounder, defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer, proved to be a bust and was shipped to Seattle for a sixth-round draft pick last summer. But all the others since 2006 have become key starters and Pro Bowl performers.

That list includes 2006 first-rounder Manny Lawson, a college defensive end who was converted to outside linebacker with the 49ers who is the player San Francisco essentially drafted Smith to replace.

Smith has a lot of learning and developing to do in a hurry if that's going to happen sooner rather than later.

"We understand it's going to be a learning process," Baalke said. "He's going to have to learn how to play on his feet in certain situations, but we feel very confident he can learn to do that. It's going to take some time. It's not a day one, throw him out there, and everything's going to fall into place for him. He has to learn the position, we realize that, and there's going to be some growing pains that go with it."

San Francisco's training camp roster still is yet to be developed with the uncertainty of the NFL lockout looming, but Smith will join a group that played outside linebacker for the 49ers last year that includes Lawson, Parys Haralson, Ahmad Brooks, Thaddeus Gibson and Travis LaBoy.

Smith might already have more talent than anybody in that group, and he's about 25 pounds bigger than Lawson, San Francisco's best speed rusher from the edge who had just 2.5 sacks last year and has produced only 14.5 in his five-year 49ers career.

The 49ers will work Smith at both outside linebacker positions – where Lawson and Haralson have been starting for years – to see if he has immediate starting potential. He also could be moved around along San Francisco's front in passing situations, perhaps even lining up with his hand on the ground like he did in college.

"I'm an athletic player, a pass-rush guy who gets to the quarterback," Smith said. "I'll bring some sacks, some energy to my athletic side. The sky's the limit for me and I'm going to work hard to reach it. I'm expecting to come in and make a contribution on defense and learn the system."

And the sooner he fits in doing that, the better for the 49ers.


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