49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

May 13, 2011
Day of the Condor: Baalke dissects Aldon Smith

Little-known fact: The California condor is the largest bird in North America with a wingspan so vast that it sometimes is confused with a small plane. Which is why I'm hoping that Aldon Smith's nickname becomes "The Condor." After all, the man's wingspan - 84 inches or 7 feet -- has been cited repeatedly and almost giddily by 49ers general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh, who made Smith the No. 7 pick in the draft on April 28. Those guys yammer on about Smith's long arms like Donald Trump used to talk about long-form birth certificates.


Here's Baalke during Thursday's film festival discussing how the 49ers use their outside linebackers in coverage. "We're not asking them to run step-for-step with wide receivers," he said. "We're asking them to occupy a zone. And when you're 6-4 with 36-inch arms, if you're functional on your feet and can drop into coverage, you can cover a wide area because of just the length, the size of the man."

In two film clips, Smith used those long wings to stretch out and snag an escaping ball carrier by the ankles. Said Baalke: "If you're a 32-arm-length guy, you don't make that tackle. If you're a 36, you make it."

That was one of Baalke's main points when it came to Smith. The selection has been criticized somewhat because draft observers saw Smith more as a defensive end than an outside linebacker, a spot that typically calls for more speed and maneuverability than defensive end. Smith has been called "stiff" by some.

Baalke, however, called the coverage demands the 49ers place on their outside linebackers "insignificant." Their No. 1 one priority is rushing the passer, something at which no individual 49er has excelled in nearly a decade. No. 2, Baalke said, is setting the edge on running plays, something the 263-pound Smith should learn to do well. Smith is expected to start out on the strong - tight end - side where offenses do most of their rushing. Baalke estimated that once Smith becomes a starter, he'd be in pass coverage on only 10- to 15 percent of the snaps, and even then he'd be required to patrol a zone, not stick with an individual receiver.

I asked Baalke if that meant that Smith's opposite at outside linebacker would have to be more adept at coverage. I had Manny Lawson, a possible unrestricted free agent, in mind when I posed the question. Lawson is not the best pass rusher of the other OLB candidates - Ahmad Brooks is - but he's the most versatile. Baalke cited Dallas' combination of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer in his reply. Neither of them are excellent in pass coverage, and "we're not asking the (49ers OLBS) to be great coverage players," he said.

Many of the clips of Smith showed him inside the Missouri defensive line, rushing as a three-technique lineman. That's where Justin Smith and Ray McDonald often lined up on third downs the last two seasons. Baalke said that would be a possible role for Smith as well but that it was up to the coaching staff. "We feel he's still developing as an edge guy, as an edge rusher, because of the way they played him at Missouri," he said. McDonald, who has been in the league for four years, also is a free agent.

As for critiques, Baalke said that Smith sometimes got "too high" on his pass rushes, which allowed offensive tackles to knock him off balance and slow him down. Smith seemed to rely heavily on a club move in college - "He's got extremely strong hands to go along with long levers," Baalke said - and will need to diversify his portfolio. But Baalke also praised Smith's eyes, noting that they usually were concentrated on the ball carrier and not the blocker. On one film clip, Smith abuses Colorado left tackle Nate Solder - he went 17th overall to New England - with an inside swim move.

Another concern with Smith is his age. He's only 21 and has limited playing experience at Missouri, which means he's raw. And he's also still growing. What happens if, in four or five years, Smith puts on another 20 or so pounds, which would make him just as heavy as 3-4 defensive end Justin Smith?

"I think you're seeing it now with the guy they just drafted out of Cal (Cameron Jordan). They're talking about lining him up as a 3-4 'backer. And he's 286 pounds right now," said Baalke, who also cited Willie McGinest and Adalius Thomas as big-bodied 3-4 outside linebackers "It all depends on the athlete. There is a point where they're going to get too big."

Next: South Carolina CB Chris Culliver.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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