Many critics panned the San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans for making Aldon Smith and Jake Locker the seventh and eighth picks of the 2011 NFL Draft.
While it is impossible to grade either team based on how their prized rookies performed in one meaningless preseason game, it is safe to say that the 49ers and Titans' staffs are feeling pretty good about their selections today.
Locker completed 15 of 17 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown. Locker also led the Titans with 39 rushing yards, including escaping the pocket for a 22-yard touchdown. While accuracy was a huge concern for Locker throughout his time with the Washington Huskies, it was clear the improvement he was making while working with former NFL quarterback Ken O'Brien. I saw the improvement in his throwing motion and accuracy first hand, traveling to Mobile to scout Locker in person at the Senior Bowl, sitting in the stands at the Combine while he threw and later at his Pro Day, as well.
Smith was a terror off the edge for the 49ers in their final tuneup before the regular season. Operating as a reserve outside linebacker and defensive end, Smith led the 49ers with seven tackles, including 2.5 sacks and four pressures.
I was among those who questioned if Smith would be able to make an immediate contribution as an outside linebacker in San Francisco's 3-4 scheme. A defensive end who owed a significant portion of his sacks to moving inside to defensive tackle during obvious pass rushing downs, I still worry that Smith lacks the agility and flexibility to ever be a star as a true outside linebacker.
However, what I didn't realize when writing my off-the-cuff grades during draft weekend was the multiple roles the 49ers had planned for Smith. These roles were made clearer during training camp and in the impressive performance Smith had last night against the Chargers. Defensive coordinator Vinc Fangio had Smith operating as an outside linebacker, but also dropped him back down to defensive end. Smith was at his best when at defensive end, routinely collapsing the pocket due to his speed, long arms and aggressive scheming by San Francisco, which used stunts to free Smith up.
Ultimately, the fourth preseason game for each player isn't likely to boost them into the starting role. Still, the strong performances were exciting for the development of two of the 2011 draft's most hotly debated prospects.