SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers looked past big-name Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert and picked his lesser-known defensive teammate instead.
Soon, the Niners could feature incumbent quarterback Alex Smith on one side of the ball and new rookie Aldon Smith on the other.
San Francisco believes it found something special in Aldon Smith, who visited team headquarters leading up to being selected by the club with the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL draft Thursday night. The 49ers also showed they may go the free agency route to fill their void at quarterback. Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, has been extended an "olive branch" as general manager Trent Baalke put it last week and the free agent was expected to meet with the team Friday — the first day players can talk with coaches, work out at team facilities and look at their playbooks since the lockout was lifted this week.
"I did talk to Alex today," said coach Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback who has said he would be eager to guide Smith. "He's coming by tomorrow."
Aldon Smith returned to the field for Missouri after missing only three games with a broken right leg. He hadn't even fully healed yet.
That toughness told the 49ers a lot about his game and spirit.
"I think I let people know I had a heart, that I love the game and I'm not a wimp," Smith said. "I'm a tough guy."
The 6-foot-4, 263-pound Smith is slated to be a strong-side outside linebacker as part of a unit led by superstar All-Pro Patrick Willis. Another former Mizzou star, defensive end Justin Smith, also helps anchor a San Francisco defense that underachieved last season.
The Niners were expected to upgrade the defense with their top pick. Smith provides an athletic, long-limbed pass rusher who set Big 12 Conference freshman records for sacks and tackles for loss in 2009. He finished with 17 career sacks in his two college seasons for the Tigers.
Harbaugh called Aldon Smith's wingspan "Dwyane Wade-like, it's almost eight feet." He will be given the opportunity to compete for a starting job right away on a team that hasn't had a winning season or reached the playoffs since 2002.
San Francisco had high hopes of capturing an NFC West title last season but instead followed up a perfect preseason by losing its first five on the way to a 6-10 record. Coach Mike Singletary was fired with one game left and Baalke and team president Jed York hired Harbaugh away from nearby Stanford to turn the franchise back into a winner.