Will preseason be Smith's coming-out party?

After the tremendous potential he's displayed through his first two weeks as a professional, there's a lot of anticipation among the 49ers – and everybody watching them – about what Aldon Smith will do when he finally lets loose in a live game situation. The first-round draft pick has been the real deal so far in training camp, suggesting his coming-out party could happen as soon as Friday night.

That's when the 49ers play their first exhibition game of the Jim Harbaugh era against the Saints in New Orleans, where all eyes will be fixed on the long-limbed rookie from the University of Missouri who has been tearing it up during San Francisco's summer practices even though the team is trying to bring along its youngest player gradually.

But Smith is making a mockery of that slow-roll plan, "flashing" talent and skill on a daily basis, to use defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's favorite word in describing his big and athletic outside linebacker who's making the transition to the edge after playing defensive end in college.

It's already become obvious why the 49ers used the No. 7 overall selection in this year's NFL draft to grab Smith, even though he's just 21 and is making the jump to the big time after his sophomore season at Missouri, a season during which Smith missed three games with a broken leg, playing on the injured limb the rest of the season after his return in late October.

Smith is giving every indication he can play. He has all the tools, and his early prowess in training camp suggests that Smith could be one of the more noticeable 49ers defenders during the exhibition season as the 49ers give him extended playing time to accelerate his development.

He is big and muscular at 6-foot-4 and 258 pounds, without a wasted ounce on his hulking frame. He has power and strength to go with that build, and an incredible 84-inch wingspan that is being talked about even more now than it was when he was drafted.

"What's it like to go against a future Pro Bowler soon?" Alex Boone, the left offensive tackle who has worked the most against Smith this summer, said when asked about the exciting rookie. "I think he's great. Great player, tough. He's fast, he's quick, he can bull you. He's got all the things that you look for in a defensive end."

Boone wasn't quite done: "He's great to practice against because he really does help you sit back and be square," the young tackle continued. "If you give him an inch he'll take a mile from you. That's the kind of guy he is and I love practicing against him. He brings a fierceness to the game. He's ferocious, he's a violent player, and he's going to be good."

Smith definitely has been showing some ferociousness with his quick and powerful pass-rush moves, and he gained some early notoriety in camp when he crushed veteran fullback Moran Norris in a contact drill after storming into the backfield. He has also displayed his quickness on the edge and has a bursting inside swim move that already has proved tough to handle for his teammates on the other side of the ball.

But perhaps a defining play of Smith's potential came earlier this week in camp when the offense attempted to run a flanker reverse to Smith's side. Smith, playing right end, patiently stayed at home, then glided into the backfield after recognizing the play, casually pushing fullback Jack Corcoran aside to lose all interference between him and receiver Tyler Beiler.

Beiler gave ground to attempt one final quick move to get around Smith, who kept his feet moving and quickly shut down the edge, stopping Beiler for a 10-yard loss. It was a play that made Smith look like he's been doing this a long, long time.

But he hasn't, as Fangio was quick to point out. Fangio quickly attempted to temper Smith's rave reviews, saying the kid still has a lot to learn and still is in the process of doing so.

"He's had his flashes," Fangio said, "and I think that's what you're seeing, that he is flashing his ability, which gives you the impression when you're kind of watching the whole thing and not focusing on one that he's doing that well, but he's struggling right now picking up the system and being efficient where we need him to be. But, he has made progress and he's basically where I expect him to be at this point.

"I think he can do it, it's just going to take time. These guys that have these transitions from college line to outside backer to 3-4, it's a process and he's going through that process right now. I do think he can do it and eventually will do it, but right now he's still in the process."

Where Smith is displaying some struggles in the process is in his pass drops, easily his biggest challenge after being a defensive lineman in college. Smith does not look comfortable when he's asked to back-pedal into pass coverage, and he's tentative about finding his zone and lacks an awareness of receivers flooding into his area.

Smith doesn't hide from what he needs to do to improve. Of course, he's still looking to improve everywhere.

"Just working on dropping and covering and just learning the system a little bit more," Smith said. "Just working on that push rush, a more consistent pass rush, more counter moves. I need to develop a go-to move and just something that's more consistent that I can get every time."

Smith already is getting the jump often on San Francisco's offensive linemen, and that includes veteran Joe Staley, the team's best tackle. Like Boone, Staley sees something special when he looks across at Smith.

"Usually, when you see defensive ends or pass rushers with the long arms, they're not too strong with it," Staley said. "They have the long arms to kind of get your hands off of them. But with Aldon, he's strong, too, so that he can really use them as an advantage. Those things are real long. He put one on me the other day and I was, like, fully extended and I couldn't even touch his body."

Smith will get plenty of action during the preseason as the 49ers monitor his progress to see if he's indeed ready for a major role in their defense come September. With veteran Ahmad Brooks missing recent practice time to injury, Smith could be in the starting lineup Friday at New Orleans.

No one would be surprised if he is there to stay.


Niners Digest Top Stories