Veteran defensive lineman Justin Smith has decided to retire after 14 NFL seasons, the final seven of which came after he signed as a free agent with the 49ers in 2007, the club announced on Monday afternoon.
“As a football coach, you will always be searching for the next Justin Smith, knowing full well you will never find a player quite like him,” 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula said in a statement. “Everybody knows about his toughness, durability, and instincts, but his greatest attribute does not get the attention it deserves. Justin never concerned himself with personal accomplishments, his unselfish nature made that impossible.
“People like to say ‘they broke the mold with him’ but there was never a mold. Justin Smith is a hand-crafted football player.”
Smith, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, joins seven-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis in announcing his retirement from professional football this offseason. In addition, linebacker Chris Borland was added to the reserve/retired list after deciding to walk away from the sport after one NFL season.
Smith, 35, has contemplated retirement the past several seasons. But with his body feeling the effects of a long football career, many close to him believed for some time that Smith had reached the end of the line.
His retirement generates immediate savings for the 49ers with the removal of his scheduled $4.25 million 2015 salary and $6.436 million cap hit.
“Justin is the consummate professional whose impact on this organization can never be measured by statistics alone,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. “His durability, competitiveness, work ethic, strength and rare stamina helped set him apart over his 14-year career. Cowboy will go down as one of the best to ever wear a 49ers uniform and his candidness, work ethic and pure passion for the game will be missed. We wish the very best for him and his family!”
Smith entered the NFL in 2001 as the No. 4 overall pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. He spent seven seasons with Cincinnati before signing with the 49ers as a free agent – arguably becoming the best free-agent signing in franchise history.
Tomsula, Smith’s position coach during his entire stay with the 49ers, said repeatedly this offseason he would not try to influence Smith’s decision. Smith was scheduled to enter the final year of the three-year, $17.1 million contract he signed in June of 2013.
“Out of respect to Justin, I’ve told him, I will not try to talk him into anything,” Tomsula said in February at the NFL scouting combine. “And I will not try to talk him out of anything. He has earned the right to make his decision on his terms. We said that for the last three or four years.
“As a football coach, do you want Justin Smith on your team? Well, hell yes. Yes. But I’m not going to go there. I’m not going to do that. I respect that guy, man. Fifteen years, playing the way he plays at that position, and the way he does it. I’m going to let him.”
Smith was not be the same dominant player last season he was during his streak of five consecutive selections to the Pro Bowl team from 2009 to ’13. But he was still among the best players last season on a 49ers’ defense that ranked fifth in the NFL. Smith ranked fourth on the team with 92 tackles and his was tied for third with five sacks.
“Tough. Physical. Durable. Hard-working. Dedicated. Selfless. Justin embodies each of those qualities and brought even more with him to work each and every day,” 49ers CEO Jed York said. “Whether it was chasing down a wide receiver and forcing a fumble to seal a win, or driving a tackle back into the quarterback’s chest, he gave everything he had every play. Justin has earned the respect of the entire NFL community and he will always be remembered as one of the 49ers all-time greats.”
Smith adds to a list of prominent 49ers who will not return next season. In addition to Willis, such players as Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox and Dan Skuta signed elsewhere as free agents.
In December, the 49ers released defensive lineman Ray McDonald after San Jose Police named him as a suspect in a sexual-assault investigation. It was the second time McDonald was investigated last season. He was not charged with domestic violence, stemming from an incident in August. The current case is still being reviewed by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office. McDonald recently signed with the Chicago Bears.
Even with the departures of two mainstays on the defensive line, Tomsula recently said he believes the line is the deepest he has seen in eight seasons on the 49ers’ staff.
The 49ers signed free-agent Darnell Dockett, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals, as a free agent. Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams, Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial and Tony Jerod-Eddie are the team’s top returning defensive linemen. The 49ers invested their first-round draft pick in Oregon defensive lineman Arik Armstead.