49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

March 1, 2008
Niners land Justin Smith

Cancel the watch for Zygi Wilf's plane. Justin Smith isn't going to Minnesota today after all. The 49ers and Smith are close to inking a deal that will make Smith one of the richest defensive linemen in the league. ESPN is reporting it as a six-year, $45 million deal with $20 guaranteed. That's a nice upgrade over the six-year, $39.5 million deal defensive end Patrick Kerney received last year from the Seahawks. I'm expecting a press conference later today ...

A few days ago, Scot McCloughan was on a conference call during which I asked him where Isaac Sopoaga would play this season. His answer was that it depended on who else the 49ers added in free agency and the draft this offseason.

“The thing about Isaac is that he gives us an opportunity to play a couple positions," McCloughan said. "Last year he played mainly nose, but also has the ability to play some end. With B.Y. retiring and the possibility of losing Marques Douglas to free agency, there is a chance he will play more end for us this upcoming season. What happens depends on free agency and the draft in the numbers and depth we have at that position. It’s a position we need to address further on. I thought it was very important to get Isaac done because he played the most consistent football this year. I think his best football is still ahead of him and I think we have three or four really good years of him coming up at the nose and at the end.”

As far as which end position Sopoaga favored, McCloughan said he fit the left side -- Young's position last year -- slightly better than the right. That's why I've been writing that I thought Justin Smith likely would play right defensive end this year. As we saw last season, it can be a play-making position. Marques Douglas made a number of tackles behind the line of scrimmage last year and the person who plays there has to be particularly stout against the run. That seems to play to Justin Smith's strengths.

There seems to be a certain percentage of the fan base that is uneasy over Smith because of his limited pass-rush prowess. After all, the guy was supposed to have his break-out year last season and ended up finishing with half the sacks Tully Banta-Cain had. Fans shouldn’t think of Smith, or any of the team’s starting defensive linemen for that matter, as pass rushers. Think of them as Patrick Willis insurance. For Willis to be effective, he has to be unfettered. And the defensive lineman’s job is to occupy offensive linemen so that Willis, Manny Lawson and Dontarrious Thomas can make plays. From what I’ve seen and heard about Smith, his best attribute is his strength. Sure, he’ll be able to chase down ball carriers and string out running plays. But when the team is in its 3-4 alignment, he’ll mostly be a nice bodyguard for Willis.


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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