I’ve joked in the past that one of the prerequisites for covering the NFL is a medical degree. Once the season starts, I estimate that 75 percent of the day-to-day stories I write have to do with injuries – who’s injured, who will replace said injured player and how Mike Nolan will react to said injured player (See: Smith, Alex). That’s the chief reason why I think the Justin Smith acquisition is a very good one. Not only has the guy avoided major injuries -- a real rarity in the NFL -- he’s shown he can play through the smaller nicks, twists and sprains that inevitably occur during a season. Yes, the contract the 49ers gave him is ridiculously large. But at least you can be reasonably assured that Smith will be out there earning that salary every game and you can be reasonably assured that someone with his ingrained work ethic will not suddenly go soft (See: Plummer, Ahmed) because of his newfound riches.
Other reasons why I like the move:
1. Smith seems custom-made for that right tackle position. He might not get very many sacks – Marques Douglas had three from the same position last year – but he’ll be more than adequate protection for Patrick Willis. Smith is a tenacious tackler, and if Manny Lawson is as good as new following ACL surgery, the 49ers will have unbelievable speed coming from the right side of the defense.
2. Losing Douglas (probable) and Bryant Young doesn’t just hurt the 49ers on the field, it removes a big leadership element from the locker room. The reports from Cincinnati are that no one works harder than Smith. He’ll be a positive influence on young defenders like Ray McDonald, Ronald Fields and Jay Moore.
3. I’ve been comparing Smith’s $45 million contract to Patrick Kerney’s $39.5 deal last year. Let’s get one thing straight – that amount of cash is insane for any player. It’s an overall reflection of just how nuts our sports culture/obsession has become in this country. Is Smith better than Kerney? It’s hard to make that argument when you compare their 2007 sack numbers – two vs. 14.5. But Smith is two years younger than Kerney was when Kerney got his deal. That has to be worth a few million bucks.
Here’s my take on the team’s other free-agent acquisitions.
1. Isaac Bruce. Yes, he’s going to be a good role model/instructor because he is so well versed in Martz’s offense. But his stats have been dipping over the past few years. His best game by far last year came against the 49ers (something that appears to be a trend for the team’s recent acquisitions) and he’s been much better on artificial surfaces than he is on grass. He averaged 60.6 receiving yards a game last year on turf vs. 35.6 yards a game on grass. The 49ers have not had very good luck with older receivers (Curtis Conway, Johnnie Morton) in recent years.
2. Dontarrious Thomas. The jury’s still out on this guy. The word out of Minnesota is that Thomas is teeming with ability but that coaches never had full confidence in him. Thomas is big, strong, fast and smart. But he didn’t show good instincts with the Vikings. We’ll have to wait and see whether he’s a good fit at Ted. At the very least he might inspire Brandon Moore to improve his game.
3. DeShaun Foster. He was the starter last year in Carolina, though he split carries with DeAngelo Williams. He’s never rushed for more than 897 yards in a season and he’s dealt with injuries and fumbling issues throughout his six-year career. Martz said he wants the offense to revolve around Frank Gore. Therefore, he needs an insurance policy should Gore go down. Foster can do that, but you have to wonder how that affects Michael Robinson, who in my opinion also is going to be a nice fit in Martz’s offense.
4. Allen Rossum. The 49ers seem to be replacing one 30-something return man (Michael Lewis) with another one. Rossum handles both kick and punt returns and has seven TDs (four kickoff, three punt) over his 10-year career. I wonder, though, if his acquisition precludes the 49ers from drafting a return specialist, say Virginia Tech’s Eddie Royal, in April.
5. J.T. O’Sullivan. I like this move. The Smith-Shaun Hill competition promises to squeeze the best out of both quarterbacks. But what will really accelerate the process is having to compete with a third guy who already knows the offense.
-- Matt Barrows