While the 49ers coaches and front office might not have known which direction Justin Smith was leaning as late as mid-February, his teammates believed he would not be returning all along.
Several players spoke late in the season about Smith in the past tense. And, recently, Aldon Smith lumped Justin Smith into the category of the 49ers’ many, notable departed players.
Clearly, Smith’s former teammates knew what he was experiencing physically as he held off on making his decision public.
“For me it’s just, you know, where I play on the right side, all my contact comes on my left shoulder and left side,” Smith said. “And it doesn’t respond like I want it to respond anymore. You know? You don’t have the tools, you can’t do the job, so it’s just time to go.”
Sources told CSNBayArea.com in March that Smith would likely retire sooner than later, but the 49ers never sought an answer from him and counseled him to hold off for as long as it would take for him know unequivocally. The 49ers were willing to keep the door open for Smith as long as there was any shred of indecision.
As the offseason wore on with organized team activities scheduled to begin on Tuesday, it was clear to Smith that his body would not enable him to ever play the sport again without putting himself through severe pain and discomfort.
Also, it was telling that Smith spent so much time before formally announcing his decision. He suggested if there are any second-thoughts about playing the sport, the decision has already been made. He said he spoke recently with 49ers running backs coach Tom Rathman, who played nine NFL seasons before retiring after the 1994 season.
“When it’s time, you know,” Smith said. “There’s a certain emotional you’ve got to go into things with the right mindset. It’s a young man’s game and you’ve got to be full of piss and vinegar when you step onto the field. As you get older, it’s harder to get that same intensity going week-in, week-out and it’s just time to go. Guys out there mean business so it was just time for me to move on.”
Smith's retirement will create at least $4.25 million in salary cap room – and as much as $6.436 million if the 49ers pursue his the remaining proration of $2.186 million from the signing bonus he received through a renegotiation in June 2013.
The 49ers were not left hanging from Smith’s reluctance to make his announcement earlier in the offseason. After all, it was the 49ers who wanted him to wait as long as it took.
The 49ers would not have used the extra cap space to acquire a big-ticket free agent. As general manager Trent Baalke has stated in the past, just because the team has the cap space, it does not mean they will spend it. The 49ers were not going to sign a defensive lineman for a price they deemed exorbitant just to sign a defensive lineman. And if they really wanted to pay big money for a defensive lineman, they could have easily generated the cap space in other areas.
After all, the 49ers knew this day was coming. They drafted Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial in 2013. They signed veteran Darnell Dockett, someone they envision being a good fit for their scheme. And the 49ers invested their first-round selection in Oregon defensive lineman Arik Armstead.
Coach Jim Tomsula said the 49ers have the deepest defensive line he has seen in his eight seasons with the organization – and that was not including Justin Smith in the equation.
“Where we’re strong, we’re just getting stronger, in my belief,” Tomsula said after the selection of Armstead with the No. 17 overall pick.
The combination of Dockett, Carradine, Dial, Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams and Tony Jerod-Eddie should give the 49ers a solid defensive line rotation, Tomsula believes. And there is little pressure on Armstead to step into the action immediate at the 4-technique (playing head-up on the right tackle).
“We’re not in a situation where Arik has to come in and plug,” Tomsula said. “So this is a place we can bring a guy in that hasn’t had those years in a weight room, that was playing basketball, and who’s still young in what he’s doing.
“Traditionally here, when you come in, it takes some training. We have that in that room. It’s not the stress of a guy coming in and having to fill a hole.”
Smith leaves a big hole on the 49ers’ line. One person alone cannot compensate for his loss. After all, Smith missed only two games due to injury in his 14-year career. He sat out the final two weeks of the 2012 regular season when he sustained a torn triceps. Of course, he returned for the Super Bowl run.
But the beginning of the end for Smith came in training camp the following season when he injured his left shoulder during a violent collision with guard Mike Iupati. Somehow, Smith managed to play all 16 games in 2013 and 2014 while making regular appearances on the injury report and rarely practicing during the week.
“There was a piece of bone that detached and lodged in the back of it,” Smith said. “I didn’t know until they went in and did surgery, but I just knew it hurt like hell. It’s just one of those things, you know, arthritis build up, wear and tear, yada, yada, yada. It’s just, you know, it’s time.”