SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The San Francisco 49ers figured they were in for a long term project when they selected Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith with the No. 6 pick in the 2011 draft.
They're happy to have been proven wrong.
At the time of the draft the team viewed Smith as an outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 scheme, despite the fact the 20-year-old played solely with his hand in the dirt in his two college seasons.
"He was never standing up at Missouri. And as a matter of fact, he played about half the time, or I would say at least 40 percent of the time, he was a defensive tackle for Missouri," Fangio said. "So, he always had his hand down. So, you never were able to see that on film. You had to just project that."
With Parys Haralson and Ahmad Brooks entrenched at the two outside linebacker spots last season, the team was able to bring Smith along slowly. In practice, he learned the nuances of playing in coverage and run support, but on game days he was sent on the field in passing situations to rush the quarterback as a defensive end.
The role was a good fit for Smith, who set the franchise rookie record with 14 sacks, but it was clear by season's end that Smith was too talented for such a minimal role. He was ready to be upgraded to an every-down linebacker, which can be a rocky transition.
"You just give him enough repetitions at it, both on the practice field and in the film room, to where he learns it and understands it," Fangio said. "And then if he's good enough talent-wise to do it, he can do it. In this case he is. So, he's learned well both on the field and in the classroom, and he's talented enough to transfer it into a good result."
Through four games as a true every-down linebacker this season, Smith is pleased with his progress. His 4.5 sacks account for more than half the team's total (8) and place him in a seventh-place tie in the NFL with Miami linebacker Cameron Wake. Smith admitted his play recognition and coverage skills need to improve, but feels he's on the right track there, too.
Perhaps more than anything, Smith is enjoying more time on the field.
"It's more fun," he said. "Definitely just playing more is the biggest thing and then being able to get out there and contribute more to the team is big."
Playing on a defense that features five guys who were named to the Pro Bowl last season, Smith was able to fly under the radar to a degree, especially early in the season.
"I think (opposing teams are) doing more things like adding more people blocking to my side and making my life more difficult," said Smith, who plays on the right side of the defense behind All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith. "They can't block everybody. If they're going to double somebody, someone else is going to be left open."
Over the past two seasons, Aldon Smith ranks fourth in the NFL in sacks (18.5) behind Dallas' Demarcus Ware (24.5), Minnesota's Jared Allen (24) and Philadelphia's Jason Babin (20.5).
"We didn't have a doubt with Aldon," All-Pro linebacker Navorro Bowman said. "He showed us what he could do with the pass and now he's playing out there on first and second down and doing a great job at it. I look forward to him continuing to get better and helping us as a defense."
The 49ers rank third in the NFL in total defense (277.2 ypg) heading into Sunday's home game against Buffalo and fourth in scoring defense (16.2 ppg).
Preparation this week has been unique for both Smiths as Bills starting left tackle Cordy Glenn will miss the game with an ankle injury. With Glenn sidelined, they'll see a lot of matchups with his replacement, second-year pro Chris Hairston, who has started just seven games in his career and none this season.
"I can't look at that one person," Aldon Smith said. "Instead of studying that person the whole week, I just have to study my rush and how I'm going to attack the quarterback."