49ers’ pass rush needed another Smith

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will break down how 12 top 2011 NFL draft picks can immediately impact their new clubs.

Missouri’s Aldon Smith(notes) was drafted seventh overall by the 49ers in 2011.

From the start of the Mike Nolan era in 2005, the San Francisco 49ers have run different types of hybrid fronts that alternated between 4-3 and 3-4 concepts. Nolan got that concept together when he was the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens from 2002 through 2004 and the Ravens moved their scheme ideas around, but there was no Ray Lewis(notes) or Peter Boulware or Ed Reed(notes) in San Francisco when Nolan got there.

Nolan tried to get his rush ends through the draft in Manny Lawson(notes) and Parys Haralson(notes), but it didn’t work out. Not only did Lawson and Haralson come up short in the sack department, they each failed to put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks in schemes designed to maximize opportunities for pass rushers in different fronts.

As it turned out, Nolan got his best pass rusher through free agency before the 2008 season, when the 49ers signed former Cincinnati Bengals lineman Justin Smith(notes) to a six-year, $45 million deal with $20 million guaranteed. That turned out to be Nolan’s last year with the team, but Smith flourished immediately in different roles, transforming himself into one of the better quarterback disruptors in the NFL. This was perhaps best typified in San Francisco’s 38-7 Week 17 win over the Arizona Cardinals last season, when Smith picked up three sacks – one each from the three-tech position, the five-tech position, and from the end role in a four-man front.

Vic Fangio

What the 49ers still lacked was dominant and definitive edge pressure from other players, which is why they drafted Missouri end Aldon Smith with the seventh overall pick. Though highly rated, Smith was seen as a reach pick to some, especially with North Carolina’s Robert Quinn(notes) (who may be a better pure pass rusher) still on the board.

However, a closer look at Smith’s game reveals a versatility that could suit him well in a hybrid defense. If new 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s work at Stanford in 2010 is any indication, San Francisco will be running all kinds of defensive schemes, and having an end able to slip inside and provide pressure in a 3-4 or 3-3-5 may be even more important than burst off the edge.

Play diagram

When Missouri played Illinois in the 2010 season opener, Smith came away with 10 tackles and two sacks in a 23-13 win. And the sack Smith picked up early in the third quarter was especially interesting in that Smith was lined up inside at a three-tech position, between the right guard and right tackle.

One of Smith’s best traits as a defender is his ability to use his feet to influence offensive linemen to go the wrong way, and that was the case on this play. The Illini had third-and-6 from their own 35, and Smith took a first step outside at the snap, leading the guard toward the tackle. He then moved inside and used a quick swim move on the guard to get in the backfield and sack quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase for a 6-yard loss.

The 49ers have been looking for that elite pass rusher for the better part of the last decade, and it’s possible that in Aldon Smith, they’ve finally found him. It’s also possible that with Justin Smith also on board, that San Francisco’s defensive line could be better than it’s been in this millennium.

Doug Farrar is a writer for Yahoo’s Shutdown Corner blog and a senior writer for Football Outsiders.