49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith is a now widely considered one of the league's top defenseman. A runner-up for the Defensive MVP in 2011, Smith is less concerned with individual accolades and more enthused about the opportunity to do something great as a team.
After reviewing every down Justin Smith played last season, it's hard to imagine a more impressive campaign following it. There is a lot of information out there that could sway someone's opinion one way or the other.
Could we expect Justin Smith to have a better year or a worse year?
Follow me after the jump for discussion of the 49ers' top-choice defensive tackle. We'll break down two arguments regarding Smith taking a step forward or a step back in 2012.
Why Justin Smith Will Have a Better Year in 2012
For a complete season, the 49ers will have Justin Smith working in tandem with pass-rush sensation Aldon Smith. Together they will man the right side of San Francisco's ferocious, record-setting defensive front. They have a combination of strength and quickness that will be havoc for opposing offenses.
The defensive unit as a whole has another year to progress and become more established together. Having installed this system in a shortened league-year, the 49ers now have an opportunity to understand each other's assignments and where they can take chances within the defense.
Beside Aldon Smith, the overall surrounding talent includes two All-Pro inside linebackers, two Pro Bowl defensive backs (CB and FS), and a tandem of outside linebackers that collectively accumulated 21 sacks in 2011. And that all happened in a year hampered by an NFL lockout, so there is room to grow.
Last year, the defensive staff was brand new, so naturally it took time for them to understand each player's strengths and weaknesses. The defensive staff, headed up by coordinator Vic Fangio, is now aware of how Smith is most effective. Additionally, they understand things they can do around him to make him even more effective.
As an individual, Justin Smith's mentality is geared toward improvement through hard work, not regression through complacency. After finishing '11 in the NFC Championship, Smith spoke up this offseason about trying to win a Super Bowl in the "window" of time he has.
Smith acknowledged the realities of the league that a team brimming with this much talent does not come along every year. The players are the right age; they have a nice balance of youth, experience and talent that works well for them on game day.
Why Justin Smith Will Have a Lesser Year in 2012
Please don't misunderstand, I'm not suggesting a down year by any means, but maybe not as visually astounding as his 2011 performance. More often than not, Smith got the better of his opponents and even made several established players like Jeff Backus and Jermon Bushrod look downright foolish at times.
And as we know, with success comes enemies. The 49ers are now marked, and Justin Smith created quite the highlight reel for himself, which will no doubt be played in every opponent's film room. Teams will be gunning for him by putting two-plus men on him. In 2012, no tackles beside maybe Jake Long will be alone in blocking Smith - he will attract the attention of the left guard and blocking backs.
Also, last season Smith became a closer in games and it will be hard to repeat those scenarios (FF vs. Eagles, PD vs. Giants -- big factor against Saints and Lions). In multiple games, he was a 4th quarter presence where he hit another gear that put him in unstoppable mode. He can take a game over from the defensive line and really impact games on a down-by-down basis.
That consistency and recurrent big-time plays by Smith could be less frequent.
There will be a lot of attention will be dedicated to the right side of the 49ers defensive front. Teams certainly took more notice of Justin Smith after the 2011 season wrapped up, and going forward, teams will emphasize his neutralization in their game plan.
And then there is the age factor. Personally, I don't believe he is slowing down any time soon but Smith -- in his early 30's -- will indeed be a year older. Players like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have been able to perform at a high level at positions that demand elite athleticism well into their thirties.
As you can see, it's harder to make an argument for Smith's regression -- it's just not probable. While a mysterious regression can occur in a player after a monster season, their position and character often plays a role in whether or not that happens. It is not in Justin Smith's makeup to stand idly by while there is the time, utilities and opportunity to do something great, like win a championship.