Justin Smith headed off into the sunset Monday afternoon, announcing his retirement from the NFL. He spent 14 years in the league, split evenly between the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers. He was a big presence on the Bengals line, but it was in San Francisco where he came closer to being a house-hold name.
Smith was often overlooked by a lot of NFL fans, but 49ers fans knew what they had in Cowboy. I suggest the former because the idea that he was only selected to five Pro Bowls shows what a popular vote really means in recognizing true talent.
Grant Cohn brought up an interesting question on Twitter that I thought could make for a fun discussion.
Better player: Justin Smith or Bryant Young?— Grant Cohn (@grantcohn) May 18, 2015
We are always looking to compare people to previous greats, so given Smith's retirement, it is kind of fitting to at least consider the topic of Justin Smith vs. Bryant Young. Cowboy developed into an icon of a dominant defense. BY spent 14 years with the franchise, and is one of the most beloved players in recent memory.
One drawback to comparisons is it can serve to lessen the contributions of one side of the discussion. Jim Harbaugh frequently used that line when asked to compare players. That being said, given the stature of Bryant Young and Justin Smith, I think we can recognize the value of both players, even as we consider who did more in what capacity.
From purely an on-field perspective, I think Justin Smith was the better, more valuable player. BY did more in a pass rushing capacity, but Smith was a guy who was asked to do other things. At the height of his abilities, Smith was as dominant a presence as I can remember over the last decade. He was the MVP of some of those dominant 49ers defenses of the last few years. We saw in 2012 what a Justin Smith injury meant to that defense. When he went down with his triceps tear against the New England Patriots, the defense suffered immensely, both in that game and moving forward into the playoffs.
This should not take away from what BY did for the 49ers. He was an icon of the franchise, particularly as things started getting turbulent during his career. I said "on-field" above because in considering them from a face of the franchise/PR type of mold, Young always felt like more of that off-field guy. Smith was a leader of this defense, but there just strikes me as something different when thinking of these guys as faces of the franchise. Maybe it has to do with BY spending his whole career with the 49ers. It might be something we can't really fully compare given how subjective it is.
But even on the field he was still a great player in so many facets of the game. There were ways in which he was under-appreciated, like Smith. In 1997, Dana Stubblefield was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year thanks to his 15 sack season. BY only had four sacks, but his work against double teams earned Stubblefield a huge pay-day that offseason. And of course, we can never forget his recovery following a gruesome broken leg. He suffered the break in 1998, only to rebound with an 11-sack Pro Bowl season.
It will be interesting now to see who takes on the mantle of the next great 49ers defensive lineman. Quinton Dial, Tank Carradine and Arik Armstead are three guys that could become that defensive lineman. It remains to be seen if any of them can carry the mantle of Cowboy and BY. The standards are high. We'll see if one or more of them grabs the proverbial brass ring.