Justin Smith will turn 35 on Sept. 30, so it’s obvious his days in the NFL are numbered.
He’s signed through this season and next, so it’s possible that 2015 will be his last in a 49ers uniform.
Though Smith is ancient in the world of professional football, the Niners’ defensive right end in their 3-4 defensive alignment has remained a force, and likely will be a key to San Franciso’s defensive success in 2014.
In the NFL Network’s recent countdown of the top 100 players in the league, Smith came in at No. 69. That’s down from No. 29 the year before, yet still among the best of the best.
“You can ask anybody that’s blocked him, and that’s probably the first thing they’ll say about him, he’s a strong cat,” said Rams offensive tackle Joe Barksdale. “Really, really strong. I don’t know how he got that strong.”
And, said Barksdale, he’s relentless.
“He’s an all-day sucker,” Barksdale said. “Whether they’re up by 30 or down by 30, he’s going to keep coming.”
Added Buffalo Bills tackle Chris Williams: “He’s one fo the few players I’ve ever played against who you know what he’s going to do, and you still have a hard time stopping it.”
Last season, the 49ers were able to give Smith a bit more rest, with a deeper rotation on the defensive line. Still, he was a force, taking on double teams, pressuring the passer, stopping the run and allowing linebackers to make tackles. In 16 starts, Smith had 49 tackles, 6½ sacks and a forced fumble. Then in three postseason games he had 13 tackles.
This season, Smith will be an anchor on the line, along with Ray McDonald on the other end and either Ian Williams or Glenn Dorsey in the middle. He’ll also likely give way at times to young Tank Carradine, who should be able to spell both Smith and McDonald and help keep everyone fresh. Carradine, in fact, could turn out to be Smith’s successor after next season.
But for now, Smith -- who didn’t participate in the recent minicamp because of a minor procedure but is expected to be ready for training camp – is a treasure the 49ers still know they’re blessed to have.
This week, in fact, Adam Schein, who writes for NFL.com, included Smith in a rundown of NFL veterans fans should appreciate now before they retire.
“I love Justin Smith, an underrated true great on the Niners’ defensive line who can play everywhere,” wrote Schein. “He’s the energizer bunny for this defense.
“The way he sacrifices his body, stops the run and gets to the quarterback … I’m not sure how much longer he can play at this level; after all, this will be the 34-year-old’s 14th NFL season. But for now, he’ll continue to greatly boost the Niners’ quest for the Super Bowl.”