This may sound insane at first glance, but did the San Francisco 49ers make the right decision in drafting Aldon Smith over J.J. Watt in the 2011 NFL draft. It became increasingly obvious in 2012 that Justin Smith is a large part of why Aldon Smith has been so productive. The eating up of blockers on the line of scrimmage by Justin Smith provided the holes for Aldon Smith to pressure the quarterback, but Justin Smith won’t be around forever. Justin Smith turns 34 years old late in September this year, and the replacement of Smith in Tank Carradine is a complete question mark. You can write all day about how Tank Carradine can replace Justin Smith, but would you rather have Tank Carradine or J.J. Watt anchoring the strongside 3-4 DE role?
Would you rather have a second-round rookie coming off a torn ACL, or the reigning Defensive Player of the Year? Seems pretty obvious, but the larger point to be made is edge rushers are overrated in the NFL. Interior pressure is more effective at getting a quarterback out of his rhythm, than edge pressure for this simple fact. Quarterbacks get used to edge pressure. A quarterback will always have the feeling of pressure off the edge, and the common technique of stepping up in the pocket to avoid the rush provides a sense of safety and security for quarterbacks. However, what if you step up in the pocket and are met by a 300 pound defensive lineman with anger in his eyes.
The 2007 New England Patriots had Tom Brady break records in the passing game, but the interior pass rush of the New York Giants turned Brady into an average quarterback in the Super Bowl. The reason so many teams invested in guards in the first-round was recognition of the impact interior pressure puts on quarterbacks. That brings us back to J.J. Watt, because Watt has become the best interior pass rusher in the NFL. His impact in the interior led to a Defensive Player of the Year award and was largely why so many teams drafted guards to catch up to that impact. Justin Smith on the other hand has already proved he can make a great edge rusher into an Elite one, but his time will end.
Taking Watt back in 2011 may have seemed like the wrong decision because Justin Smith still had something left in the tank, but as of 2013, taking Watt over Aldon Smith would have been the right decision.
James Cobern is a NFC West Division Leader for TPF and can be contacted at JCobern@ThePenaltyFlagBlog.com or follow him on Twitter @Jmcobern1