Unlike the recent retirements of inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland, the end of Justin Smith’s career was expected.
Though the 49ers hoped their former All-Pro defensive end would return for one more season, they prepared for the worst.
In fact, now that Smith has announced his retirement, the Niners have several players to compete for his position because they’ve been stockpiling defensive linemen for three to four seasons.
Will any of them be as good as Smith in 2015? Certainly not. Smith was a disruptive force, a supremely strong defensive lineman in the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme who could tie up blockers, stuff the run and allow the team’s mobile and talented linebackers to make tackles.
But as the 49ers head into their first of three OTAs (organized team activities) that begin Tuesday (May 19-21), San Francisco is sure to have a lively battle to earn the spots at left and right defensive end vacated by the release of Ray McDonald (left side) and retirement of Smith (right side).
Veteran Darnell Docket, signed from the Cardinals, is the likely starter at one spot. He has yet to participate in offseason workouts with the team following surgery last year, but says he’s right on target to compete in training camp.
According to Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers for the Sacramento Bee, No. 1 pick Arik Armstead, Quinton Dial and Tony Jerod-Eddie are competing for the job on the left side. Glenn Dorsey and Carradine are penciled in to duel for Smith’s former job on the right side, with Dockett.
New head coach Jim Tomsula, the longtime former defensive line coach, told Barrows that the team is deep at the position.
“For four years – you see the D-linemen we’ve brought in – we’ve been making preparations,” Tomsula said earlier this spring. “This isn’t a this-year thing for us. We’ve been making preparations. A guy (Smith) gets to 12 years in the National Football League … you better start making preparations. That started a while ago.”
Armstead and Carradine may have the most upside of the young players on the line. Carradine, who lost his rookie season to injury rehab, played well late in 2014, getting seven tackles and three sacks from Weeks 15 through 17. And Armstead excites the 49ers with his size and athleticism after a career at Oregon.