In mid April, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke was asked if Justin Smith were lifting weights yet following surgery in February to repair a torn triceps.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Oh, yeah.”
A month later, Smith isn’t participating in the 49ers organized team activities (OTAs) that are wrapping up their second week. The team is giving him more time to get back to 100 percent before the start of training camp in July. Besides, he has nothing to gain. In his absence, other young players have been getting snaps at his right defensive-end position in San Francisco’s 3-4 defense (known as the “under tackle” in Niners lingo), which could prove fruitful in the long run, as the team starts preparing for life after Smith, when the 33-year-old All-Pro eventually retires .
Yet going toward the 2013 season, no player means more to the 49ers defense than Smith. Though the team has brought in Nnamdi Asomugha to play cornerback, No. 1 pick Eric Reid to play safety and Glenn Dorsey and Tank Carradine to bolster the defensive line, it’s the return of Smith to full health that likely will determine how effective the San Francisco defense is in the coming season.
After his injury late in the regular season in 2012, the 49ers defense never was the same. The pass rush suffered, which then allowed opposing quarterbacks in the postseason to have much better success against the Niners secondary.
At this point however, Smith is reported to be ahead of schedule and back to full strength, which means he’d again be a force and require other teams at times to double team him – allowing his teammates to make plays.
Baalke has reported doctors have told the team Smith has “no restrictions, no limitations” on his movement and training, which involves heavy sessions in the weight room.
How important is Smith to the Niners? Even those outside the Bay Area are aware of his impact. On Thursday, NFL.com analyst Geno Atkins put together his ratings of the most indispensable defensive players in the league, and Smith came in at No. 4, behind (in order) Bengals tackle Geno Atkins, Texans linebacker Brian Cushing and Broncos linebacker Von Miller.
Wrote Atkins: “He’s tough. He’s clutch. He takes on blockers and frees up other players. Smith sets the tone in practice and in games. He’s the Energizer Bunny on one of the truly elite defenses in the league. Down the final stretch of last season and in the playoffs, when Justin Smith was hurt, it put more attention on Aldon Smith. Not coincidentally, Aldon’s play dropped.”
Smith tried to make it work late last season, taking the field after his injury and wearing a bulky brace to be in the lineup. Despite playing with just one full-strength arm, he made tackles and some plays.
“And the legend grows,” Jim Harbaugh told the media at the time. “What a player.”
But, he wasn’t the “part-man, part-beast” legend that he was before the injury, said the New York Times’ Greg Bishop.
If he can come back completely healthy for the 2013 season, the Niners’ D – with the additions through free agency and the draft – could be much improved.
“So much of Justin’s greatness doesn’t show up in making plays,” said former 49ers quarterback Trent Dilfer, now an NFL analyst. “So much of it is in how he helps others make plays. I’m convinced he’s one of the 10 best players in the NFL, the impact he has on every game.”