Just got off the phone with Mark Curnutte, the beat writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer, who spoke very highly about Justin Smith. Perhaps the most pertinent thing Curnutte said about the 49ers-Smith relationship was this: “If they’re going to flip back and forth from the 3-4 to the 4-3, he could be a really good fit. He’s extremely athletic and he’s a very bright player.” That indeed is what the 49ers plan to do in 2008, perhaps even more than they did in 2007.
Curnutte also shed some insight into why Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan may have become so enamored with Smith. We all know how Nolan feels about oft-injured players (See: Plummer, Ahmed; Jennings, Jonas). Well, Smith has started 107 straight games, which is pretty damn impressive for a defensive end. Curnutte said Smith will get nicked like any player will, but he’ll play through the injury and it won’t affect his game. Smith has that blue-collar, Bryant Young-like work ethic that the 49ers treasure.
The other thing that Curnutte stressed was Smith’s speed. Smith caught a lot of slack in Cincinnati for his sack total last season (two), but Curnutte said there were many near misses and that Smith did a good job pressuring the quarterback. He said Smith’s numbers may have suffered because the Bengals got little push from their defensive tackles and that offenses would sometimes use two blockers on Smith.
So if Smith’s so great, how come the Bengals didn’t put up more of a fight to retain him? One reason may be the Bengals’ reluctance to pay any player a huge salary like the 49ers are poised to do for Smith. Another is that Cincinnati is turning to a more traditional 3-4 defense, one in which the ends are huge men approaching 300 pounds in weight. Smith, at around 275 pounds, simply wouldn’t have fit their plans.
-- Matt Barrows