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Aldon Smith Expects Growth in 2013

Posted Feb 13, 2013

Aldon Smith isn't resting on his 2012 success as he prepares for 2013.

Don’t call him a pass-rusher. He’s more than that now.

As he packed up his locker last week at 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara, Aldon Smith did it as one of the NFL’s best defensive players. Sure, the 19.5 sacks were notable, but so were the 66 tackles he racked up all season.

By the end of the year, Smith was a household name.

“It means a lot,” Smith said. “I’m not just a pass-rusher, I’m an all-around player. What I’m trying to do is establish myself as one the best players, not just the best pass-rusher.”

Expectations were high for Smith entering the 2012 season.

He burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2011, posting a franchise rookie record of 14 sacks. Because of that production despite limited snaps, coaches penciled in Smith as a full-time starter for 2012. When veteran outside linebacker Parys Haralson went down with a season-ending arm injury in the third preseason game at Denver, Smith fully accepted all the challenges that came with an every-down workload.

Smith met those lofty goals and more, en route to being named the Bill Walsh Award Winner, given to the team’s Most Valuable Player as voted on by the coaches. But at just 23 years old with two seasons under his belt, Smith and the 49ers are hoping the best is yet to come.

When asked what aspect of his game he’d like to improve, Smith couldn’t pinpoint just one thing.

“Overall, just the whole game; better at everything,” Smith said. “I don’t think I’m a perfect player by any means. I want to get better at everything I’m doing.”

As he prepared for the NFC Championship in Atlanta, Smith spent some of his pre-game training session speaking with NFL single-season sacks leader Michael Strahan. While Smith ultimately fell short of Strahan’s mark of 22.5 sacks this year, despite racking up 19.5 in the first 13 games, he was proud to have played such a big role in San Francisco’s Super Bowl run.

For the team-oriented Smith, he never detected a drop-off in his production, even if many focused on the fact he didn’t register a sack for the final six games of the year.

“It was a special season,” Smith said. “We all came out here and played really hard. We had our ups and downs. It’s a long road to the Super Bowl and we got to where we wanted to, but the outcome isn’t what we wanted to have.”

Aside from his own personal growth, Smith is looking forward to developing with his fellow Pro Bowl linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, along with Ahmad Brooks. Once Bowman inked his five-year extension in November, the quartet of linebackers is under contract to stay together for at least three more seasons.

Smith is signed through 2015, Willis through 2016, Brooks through 2017 and Bowman through 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has acknowledged that the current group of 49ers linebackers has set the foundation to rival the production of the famed “Dome Patrol,” a group of linebackers which set the standard with Fangio’s coaching during the 1980s in New Orleans.

Likewise, Smith has enjoyed learning his NFL craft as part of one of the league’s top defenses.

“We’ve put together two good years of defense, two good years of football,” Smith said. “Try to keep the trend going.”

A lot has happened with the 49ers defense, and linebackers in particular, over the past two seasons.

Fangio was brought aboard by Jim Harbaugh to guide the team’s defense, while Bowman and Brooks were elevated to the starting lineup before the 2011 season. Add Smith into the mix, and there’s a reason why the 49ers have led the league in scoring defense over the past two seasons combined, giving up an average of just 15.7 points per game.

Joining the aforementioned quartet of linebackers this year was 13-year veteran Clark Haggans. Signed by the 49ers shortly before the 2012 season opener, Haggans was a valuable backup outside linebacker and presence in the locker room.

He was the only player on the 49ers roster to be playing in his third Super Bowl in New Orleans, as he has already won a ring with the Steelers and lost a Super Bowl with the Cardinals. But Haggans especially enjoyed his season in San Francisco. He believes the team is poised to have sustained success in the future.

“The 49ers are one of those organizations in professional sports that everyone knows,” Haggans said, “from Antarctica to South America to Europe to Japan to all over the country. Those Lombardi Trophies that are sitting in the lobby out front are prime examples of what this organization stands for.”

Having players like Smith leading the team’s defense for years to come means the 49ers will be positioned to make more runs at those Lombardi trophies.

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