When the San Francisco 49ers signed DE Justin Smith to a six-year, $45 million contract in 2008, few knew who he was. Regarded as a second tier free-agent signing, he was considered solid but not great. Fast forward five years, and Smith has quickly become a household name. The player now known as “Cowboy,” has registered 322 tackles, 32 sacks, and 7 forced fumbles. In addition, he has been named to four consecutive Pro Bowls from 2009-2012. Regarded as one of the best defensive ends in the game, Smith has been nothing short of spectacular since signing with the Niners. However, last year proved to be a different story, as he was fighting numerous injuries throughout the season, including a partially torn left triceps.
Smith known for his durability, was unable to finish out the regular season, making it the first time he has missed a regular season game, since his rookie year. And the 49ers defense suffered because of it, especially OLB Aldon Smith. In Aldon’s, last three regular season games, he was unable to record a single sack, whereas in his previous 13 games, he had racked up 19.5. Their seemed to be a strong correlation with the “Smith Brothers” being on the field at the same time, and it showed.
And although, Justin only record 3.0 sacks during the regular season, he still garnered Pro Bowl recognition from the coaching staff, fans, and his peers. One of the top defensive lineman in the game, Smith needs to have yet another Pro Bowl season while remaining healthy, if the 49ers hope to reach the Super Bowl again in 2013, and I believe he will.
For one, Smith is an absolute workhorse in the off-season. He is 100% business, all the time. And although stats are not everything, you can bet he was highly disappointed with his sack total last year. He is consistently double teamed on every play, but yet Smith somehow finds a way to get pressure on the quarterback. Look for him to register around 8 sacks this up coming season, as he’s out to prove he still has it.
Another reason “Cowboy” needs to have another stellar season is due to the lack of depth along the defensive line. The 49ers lost key free-agents in NT Isaac Sopoaga (Eagles) and DE Ricky Jean-Francois (Colts), so having a healthy “Cowboy” is imperative more than ever. Even if the 49ers decide to draft a top flight defensive lineman in this year’s draft, there is no guarantee that player will pan out. This makes “Cowboy” more valuable in Vic Fangio’s complex 3-4 scheme.
Lastly, if ”Cowboy” goes down, you can bet your money, the 49ers pass rush will be among the worst in the league. If you take away Aldon’s sack numbers last year, the 49ers have a mediocre pass rush at best. Furthermore, the next best pass rushing threat other than Aldon last year, was OLB Ahmad Brooks. And that is not saying much considering he only had 6.5 sacks. I’m not saying the 49ers pass rush is horrible, but they clearly need “Cowboy” saddled up, if the 49ers hope to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Whether or not “Cowboy” regains his dominance as a 3-4 defensive end remains to be seen, however, one thing is for sure, the 49ers must have a healthy Justin Smith if they have any hope of making it two consecutive trips to the Super Bowl.