Niners defensive lineman Justin Smith hopes to be a force again in the 2013 season. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
There are draft choices to be made, free agents to consider and hard choices still to come for the 49ers this offseason.
For a team that wants to get better in 2013 – even after going to the Super Bowl – the Niners can’t rest.
But one of the biggest and most important improvements the team can make will be in the hands not of general manager Trent Baalke, but defensive lineman Justin Smith.
Smith, who underwent surgery to repair a torn left triceps shortly after the Super Bowl, faces a three-month rehab process back home in Missouri. By June, the 49ers are likely to know if their most important defensive force is going to be back at full strength for 2013.
After Smith had the surgery at Stanford Hospital, Baalke said the procedure went “really well. It should be a short rehab for him, and he should be back to normal.”
Back to normal is certainly what the 49ers need from Smith, an All-Pro who was able to play in the postseason but not at his usual high-impact velocity.
After suffering what was described as a 50-percent tear of his left triceps in a victory over the New England Patriots in mid-December, Smith missed the final two regular-season games before returning for two playoff games and the Super Bowl.
With Smith out, the 49ers defense wasn’t nearly as effective. When he returned for the postseason, the Niners still lacked the force he had brought to the defensive line. After his injury, teammate Aldon Smith didn’t get a sack for the rest of the season – after collecting 19½ through the first 13 games.
Though Smith was able to play in the postseason with a brace on his left arm, he wasn’t the same player. In the Super Bowl, for instance, his play as judged by Pro Football Focus, was graded as his worst game of the season. He had three tackles and not a single quarterback hit or hurry, and was dominated by Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele. According to Pro Football Focus, Justin Smith had negative grades against the run and in pass-rush situations.
Now Smith, 33, is back home in Missouri, working to get back to 100 percent. He will make $8 million in 2013, the final year of his deal with San Francisco. The 49ers are looking to add some youth and depth to the defensive line this offseason through free agency and the draft, but Smith’s return to his status as a four-time Pro Bowler may be the team’s most crucial offseason factor.
Justin Smith isn’t on Twitter, and he keeps a low profile. He’s not going to be sending out messages every day about the progress he’s making in rehab, how strong he’s feeling or if he’s hit a bump in the road.
But no doubt Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh are keeping tabs on their defensive line star and his progress. It won’t surprise any of his teammates if the guy they call Cowboy shows up in late May or June at full strength again and ready to dominate.
To his teammates, Justin Smith is a player on a special level, and the Niners need him to get back to that level by September.
“That guy is unbelievable,” 49ers guard Alex Boone told a reporter last month. “The guy will rip you apart. He’ll do it again, over and over.”
Smith certainly wants to again be an impact player.
“I’m not going to retire after this year,” Smith said at the Super Bowl. “I would like to come back and try to here again. I realize my career is definitely winding down. I’m not saying I’m going to play another eight years or something like that. I want to play at a high level.”