One of the big unknowns for the 49ers going into this season concerned All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith.
Would the 33-year-old be able to rehab from offseason surgery to repair a torn left triceps that limited his effectiveness last year?
After one day of training camp, it appears the Niners have their answer. Smith should be just fine.
In the team’s opening day of full-squad practice, the four-time Pro Bowler – who anchors San Francisco’s three-man front on the right side – looked like his old self.
He was active, strong, full of energy and free of the brace he wore on his left arm through the postseason, when his effectiveness was diminished and the team’s pass rush faltered.
He said he’s back to 100 percent strength again.
“I’m ready to go and it feels great,” Smith told reporters Thursday.
Justin Smith was one half of the team’s Smith & Smith defensive duo that appears to be back at full strength for 2013. Right outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who plays behind Justin, was practicing Thursday, recovered from offseason surgery on a torn labrum.
“Some years you’re going to have more injuries, some years you’re going to have less injuries,” Justin Smith told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “It’s football. People are running into each other. That kind of stuff is going to happen, but I hope it doesn’t happen this year.”
So do the Niners and their fans.
After Smith was injured late in the season, San Francisco’s defense suffered. Without Smith at full strength, it was apparent how important he is. With a healthy Smith, offenses have to account for him. Because of his strength against both the run and pass, he’s often double teamed, opening the door for other players – particularly the linebackers – to make plays. That changed when he suffered the triceps injury. Though he was able to play while wearing the brace, it was obvious he wasn’t the same player in the postseason that he had been early in the year.
Smith, who signed an extension this offseason to stay with the 49ers through 2015, says the defense will need to improve on what it did last season. Some new players have been brought in, but the entire unit needs to improve on its NFC championship season, he said.
“I think we had a really good defense last year, but I think there are things we need to clean up,” he told Taylor Price of 49ers.com. He added that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio held a meeting with the entire unit Thursday to set the tone for training camp.
“Coach Fangio talked to us about it, what we need to improve on, that’s what we went over on the first day, so that’s where our focus is going forward,” Smith told Price. “We need to get back to the basics and start over from scratch a little bit.”
Having Justin Smith healthy and at full strength will certainly help.