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 out of Utah, has been extended an "olive branch" as general manager Trent Baalke put it last week, and the free agent was expected to visit with the Niners brass Friday — the first day players can meet 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."
The 49ers fielded calls Thursday from teams inquiring about trading up but Harbaugh wouldn't elaborate on how seriously the team considered any such offers.
Aldon Smith returned to the field for Missouri this past season 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."
Harbaugh said it was clear on tape that Smith was limping at times on his tender leg.
"That struck a chord. Bones usually take 4 to 6 weeks to heal," Harbaugh said. "He's not afraid to go into a pile of bodies."
The 6-foot-4, 263-pound Smith is slated to be a strong-side outside linebacker on a unit led by superstar All-Pro Patrick Willis. Another former Mizzou star, defensive end Justin Smith, also helps anchor a San Francisco 3-4 defensive scheme that underachieved last season.
Smith will have to be a quick learner as he makes not only a position change but also adjusts to the demands and increased speed at the next level.
Last year, with Baalke running his first draft, San Francisco picked right tackle Anthony Davis at No. 11 and then left guard Mike Iupati six spots later. Both started every game.
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, 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.
Harbaugh didn't want to discuss the decision to go with Aldon Smith over the "priority" of finding a QB.
"It's irrelevant to talk about other guys," Harbaugh said.
San Francisco had high hopes of capturing an NFC West title last year 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 and perennial playoff contender.
Harbaugh has been hard at work since right after he received a $25 million, five-year deal, but his job will truly kick in once he is on the field with his players. He was eager to see some of his guys in the coming days. There's some thought Alex Smith could sign a deal as soon as early next week once the league starts approving contracts — if he decides he wants to come back to the only team he's played for with no guarantee he will be the starter.
"It's a big relief to know we're going to be around some of our guys tomorrow, get some people in the building, get some football going," Harbaugh said.