Posted June 14, 2012

Huddle Up: Is Aldon Smith ready for a bigger role?

San Francisco 49ers

Aldon Smith’s pass rush prowess made him a prominent part of rookie of the year talk. (Getty Images)

Throughout the NFL’s lengthy offseason, “Huddle Up” will provide you with a quick take on an important story or development from around the league …

Is there a more uncelebrated player in the NFL than Parys Haralson?

I’d be willing to venture that a few of you don’t even know who I’m talking about. But Haralson has started 68 games at linebacker for the 49ers over the past five seasons (including all 16 last year and 47 of 48 regular season games since 2009) and has 21.5 career sacks.

Unfortunately for his own personal fame, Haralson, after San Francisco drafted him in 2006, spent his first five seasons playing for a team that barely made a blip on the national radar. And when the 49ers finally broke through in 2011, making a run to the NFC title game, Haralson’s impact was lapped numerous times by Aldon Smith’s performance.

Haralson got the nod at outside linebacker in San Francisco’s base 3-4 defense; Smith took over for him in passing situations, sliding up to assume a defensive end position when the 49ers used their nickel package.

This season, however, the durable and steady Haralson could be in line for a major drop in playing time, because the 49ers want Smith on the field far more than he was in 2011.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio confirmed this week the plans to use Smith as an every-down OLB this season, as opposed to just running Smith out there on passing downs:

“If it turns out that he doesn’t warrant the job with his play, then he’ll go back to that,” Fangio said. “But I think when you have a player of his ability you’ve got to do anything and everything you can to get him on the field more.”

During the 2011 regular season, Smith took part in about 50 percent of San Francisco’s defensive plays — he was on the field for 506 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus; Haralson, meanwhile, lined up for 511 plays, and Carlos Rogers led the team with 1,024.

Smith racked up 14 sacks in his limited playing, far and away the most on the team and fifth-most in the league. This isn’t the first time San Francisco has pitched idea of utilizing Smith on more downs, though. General manager Trent Baalke sang the same tune way back during the NFL’s scouting combine.

As Fangio pointed out, Haralson’s presence would allow San Francisco to put the kibosh on this plan if Smith can’t make the transition. Make no mistake, it’s a difficult switch.

Not only does Smith have to show the endurance to be on the field for every play, but he has to “master the zone coverage, where he fits in drops, picking up routes, et cetera,” Fangio said, as opposed to simply revving up the engine and rushing the quarterback.

Smith can probably expect to see quite a few run plays his direction too, at least early. With Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman manning the middle of San Francisco’s 3-4, and Ahmad Brooks back to lock down the left side, the inexperienced Smith should be the clear target for offenses hoping to grind it out a bit.

That approach would also give San Francisco a relatively quick answer to whether or not Smith’s ready for this added challenge. The option to return to a lineup that features Haralson on first and second downs, with Smith working in on passing downs, is something most teams in the league would be envious of.

It makes sense, though, for the 49ers to want Smith on the field more, so long as that switch does not come at the expense of Smith’s sensational pass-rushing ability.

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  1. [...] big challenge for Smith will be adjusting to defending the run a lot more. (We took an in-depth look at the Smith switch earlier this offseason.) The 49ers still have Haralson in the wings should [...]