As expected, the 49ers went for defense with their first-round pick in the NFL draft last night, but they threw a bit of a curve in picking Missouri defensive end-outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who had not been mentioned in any of the pre-draft speculation.
Despite all the talk about the team needing a quarterback, pass defense has been the No. 1 problem for the Niners. Opposing teams who are trailing by less than a touchdown with two minutes to go have known that a “W” is pretty much guaranteed if they just throw the ball. The 49ers couldn’t stop that.
One way to strengthen the pass defense is to have a shutdown corner, and I’m guessing that Patrick Peterson of LSU was at the top of their wish list. But Peterson, probably the best athlete in the draft, was always an unrealistic hope, and he went two spots ahead of the 49ers’ pick.
The other way to strengthen the pass defense is to improve the pass rush, and the 49ers hope to have accomplished that with Smith, who played defensive end in Missouri’s 4-3 defense but will be an outside linebacker for the Niners, who operate out of the 3-4.
He’s young, only 21, and still growing. The scouting report on him is that he probably won’t be very good dropping back in pass coverage, but that’s not why the Niners drafted him. They want him getting after the quarterback because they haven’t had consistent pressure from their outside backers.
As I wrote last week, the 49ers had no plans to draft a quarterback with that first pick. They could have easily because Cam Newton, at No. 1 to Carolina, was the only quarterback gone when their turn came up.
There are a lot of quarterbacks in this draft, but they all came with question marks — even Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner who had played only one year at Auburn and in a spread offense. Quarterbacks coming out of that type of offense often have trouble adjusting to a pro offense — Tim Tebow is the latest example — because, as Baalke noted last week, option quarterbacks almost always go to their first read, only occasionally to their second and never to their third. That is the exact opposite of what new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh will expect from his quarterback.
So, the Niners gambled that they can pick up a quarterback they can develop in the second round, or even later. It wouldn’t surprise me if they took two quarterbacks.
The NFL will have to open up the free-agent market again, and it is a possibility that the 49ers will also pick up a quarterback there — or that they may re-sign Alex Smith, to whom they’ve offered a new contract.
So, they decided to strengthen their defense. In the NFL, you have to pass the ball to win, but you also have to stop the pass.