The 49ers praised Aldon Smith’s character and commitment in comments after selecting one of the NFL’s top pass-rushers with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 draft.
On the 49ers’ draft board, a gold helmet is affixed to the card of players who meet all the criteria the organization covets from a young player.
“Not just the physical traits, but more importantly the intangibles,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said following the 2011 draft.
“Were they football guys? Were they clean guys off the field? Were they going to be family men first? Things like that. Did they have the football intelligence that we were looking for and the competitive drive?”
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General manager Trent Baalke later estimated that all but one of the 49ers’ 2011 draft class was assigned a gold helmet. In describing Smith, it seemed apparent the 49ers gave him their highest designation.
“We go through a very thorough process and once again, everybody in our building is involved in this process,” Baalke said in 2011 after the selection. “We interview the players. The coaches interview the players. The scouts interview the players.
“We flew Aldon out here for a visit. He spent the whole day with our coaching staff, part of the day with myself, part of the day with the position coaches and part of the day with the head coach. We went a very thorough interview process with him.”
However, according to a report from Alex Marvez of Fox Sports, Smith was red-flagged before the 2011 draft by the North Carolina-based scouting service Human Resource Tactics, which works with subscribing NFL teams.
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"He has some past experience with getting into trouble and is a higher-than-average risk for this sort of behavior in the future," the report states.
The HRT report also states: "Smith's upside potential is limited by his poor work ethic. Although he will not use injuries as an excuse, he will not always give his best and stay focused in practice. Smith does not seem to understand the link between preparation and game performance. Instead of paying the price time and again to improve his skills, coaches will see that he will slack off occasionally and will try to get by with sporadic levels of preparation and effort in practices and the offseason.”
Smith’s work ethic has not been questioned in his first three NFL seasons, as he quickly developed into one of the NFL’s top pass-rushers with 42 quarterback sacks in just 43 regular-season games.
At the time the 49ers selected Smith, Baalke said Smith’s willingness to return after missing just three games with a broken bone in his leg was seen as a quality of toughness and character that attracted the 49ers’ attention.
“When you have a guy that’s willing to go out there knowing he’s probably going to come out as a junior and still battle through it and get himself back on the field, yeah, that does show you something about his character and his will,” Baalke said.
Smith played two college seasons at Missouri and entered the NFL at the age of 20.
“There are a lot of qualities to like in him,” Baalke said in 2011. “Obviously, once again, he’s young. There are growing pains that go along with that. Those are all things we took into consideration, but he comes from a strong foundation. He comes from a strong program. Just the uniqueness in his physical talents and the ability for us to mold him into the type of player that we see him becoming is really what it came down to.”