The San Francisco 49ers announced Monday that All-Pro defensive lineman Justin Smith has officially retired.
Smith, who turns 36 in September, has accomplished much in his career with both the 49ers and Bengals. He was drafted by Cincinnati in the first round (fourth overall) of the 2001 NFL draft out of Missouri. Smith played in Cincinnati for seven seasons until March 1, 2008, when he signed a six-year, $45 million deal with the 49ers.
That's when Smith's career really took off. He was selected to five consecutive Pro Bowls from 2009 to 2013, and in 2011 and 2012, was named to the AP All-Pro team. He ironically had exactly 43.5 sacks in both Cincinnati and San Francisco and spent seven years with each franchise.
Smith will be more remembered for what he did with the 49ers than what he accomplished in Cincinnati. After all, he won five playoff games, got to three conference championships and played in one Super Bowl with San Francisco. He made the playoffs just once with the Bengals, which was a home loss to Pittsburgh in 2006.
There's also the fact that Smith was better suited for San Fran's 3-4 defense as a defensive tackle than he was as a defensive end in Cincinnati's 4-3 scheme. He was one of the best in football when it came to maintaining his gap and keeping blockers off 49ers linebackers and pass-rushers.
That helped pave the way for linebackers like Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith and Navarro Bowman to have All-Pro seasons. He was an All-Pro player for the Niners, but in Cincinnati, he never could find a true role. It reached a point where most, including our fearless leader, thought it was best to let Smith leave once he became a free agent in 2008.
It turned out to be a great decision for both sides. With Smith gone, Cincinnati went on to draft Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson in the next two drafts. The duo two have both topped 9.5 sacks in a single season since then, a mark Smith never reached in his NFL career. They were simply better fits for what Cincinnati needed in its defensive ends.
Smith was too bulky to be an effective pass-rusher in a 4-3 scheme, but not enough so that he could be a 4-3 defensive tackle either. Had Smith played his entire career in a 3-4 defense, he probably would be a lock for the hall of fame. We debated if he was back in 2013, and since then he's only reinforced his hall-of-fame candidacy.
Still, while Smith thrived more in San Francisco, his contribution to the Bengals won't be forgotten. He was routinely one of, if not the best player on some pretty putrid Bengals defenses. That never deterred Smith though, as he brought it every game in which he played.
If this truly is the end for Smith, he finishes his career with 880 tackles (613 solo), 87 sacks and 17 forced fumbles. This is also another big blow to a 49ers defense that also lost Chris Borland and Patrick Willis to surprise retirements this offseason.