Each year, we like to run a series of posts called "90-in-90." The idea is that we'll take a look at every player on the roster, from the very bottom to the top and break them down a few ways. This roster will certainly change, and some days we'll have more than one so it's not exactly 90 players in 90 days. At this point, it's a name we're keeping around for street cred.
I don't recall exactly how I felt when the San Francisco 49ers gave Justin Smith a six-year contract as a free agent back in 2008. I was just getting started writing the Golden Nuggets here at Niners Nation at that point, and I wasn't nearly as obsessive about football as I am today. I imagine it was that lack of actual knowledge that probably led to me thinking it was a dumb thing for the team to do.
But, ya know, five consecutive Pro Bowls later, I think I'm coming around to the deal.
Smith has consistently been one of the top defensive players in the NFL. For a couple years there, Smith was probably the MVP of the team. In 2012, Smith might have taken a step back, however. He missed a couple games, he had the lowest sack total of his San Francisco career, and generally didn't make as huge an impact thanks to the aforementioned injuries.
But Smith was back in action last season, and played in all 16 regular season games. He managed 49 tackles, 6.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He also had 13 tackles in three postseason games. For what it's worth, Smith played less than he has in recent seasons (missed games notwithstanding), but when he was on the field, he played with a higher motor than anybody else, as he has done his entire time with the 49ers.
He's relentless, and fights through double teams as well as anyone in the league. You can find multiple pictures of Smith dragging a player or two along while he reaches for a quarterback with one hand. The other is probably beating the crap out of another player.
I don't know how much longer Smith has in the NFL, but he's signed with the 49ers through 2015. He's definitely in decline, but the 49ers are dropping his snap count to keep him fresh, and that worked very well in 2013.
Why he might improve:
The players around Smith will dictate whether or not we can see him as having "improved." Smith's game doesn't necessarily require him having huge stats, he's effective whether he gets the sack or not. But he can always get a few more sacks, and I suppose that would be improvement. At his age, improvement isn't necessarily the goal so much as it is keeping yourself consistent.
Why he might regress:
Justin Smith is 34 years old, and he'll turn 35 during the 2014 season. Not many players at his position last as long as he has in the NFL. Young, hungry defensive linemen are generally the most coveted players at the top of the NFL Draft, but Smith has been consistently dominant for years. Regression at any point going forward would be devastating, but not surprising.
Odds of making the roster:
Smith's contract is reasonable, so even if he does hit that wall of regression, he's not going anywhere. He has so much value as a veteran for the other players to look up to on top of all of that. He's here, 100 percent.