SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The mass exodus of key San Francisco 49ers is continuing, as the organization observes a massive shift in eras heading toward 2015.
Defensive end Justin Smith, 35, will retire after 14 NFL seasons, the team announced Monday in a statement. Smith had been dealing with arm, shoulder and back ailments over the last three seasons, but didn't miss a start since 2012 despite the injuries. He appeared in five Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro.
Promoting defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to head coach, after parting with Jim Harbaugh, was not enough to convince Smith to return for a 15th year.
“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 in a statement. “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 stepped away from the league having earned over $78 million in salary, according to Spotrac.com, over his career split between the Bengals and 49ers after being taken with the fourth-overall pick in the 2001 draft by Cincinnati. He joined San Francisco as a free agent in 2008, replacing four-time Pro-Bowler Bryant Young after his retirement.
“Justin is the consummate professional whose impact on this organization can never be measured by statistics alone,” general manager Trent Baalke wrote. “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!”
A report surfaced from the NFL Network during the team's final game in 2014 that Smith would indeed be retiring, but it was not made official until Monday. Reports throughout the offseason said Smith was undecided about his future. Smith continued to work out at San Jose State and at 49ers headquarters this spring.
"Justin Smith will be working out for the rest of his life. That’s who he is," Tomsula said Friday.
Smith joins retirees Patrick Willis and Chris Borland in life after football, while San Francisco will also move forward without veterans in running back Frank Gore, guard Mike Iupati and receiver Michael Crabtree, who signed free-agent deals with the Colts, Cardinals and Raiders this offseason, respectively. The team also lost starting cornerbacks Chris Culliver (Washington) and Perrish Cox (Titans) in free agency.
The best season of Smith's career might have come in 2011, when he finished third in defensive player of the year voting - behind winner Terrell Suggs and runner up Jared Allen - as an anchor in the league's second-ranked scoring defense, leading the 49ers to a berth in NFC Championship Game in which it lost to the New York Giants, in overtime, following two late turnovers from punt returner Kyle Williams.
But over the next three seasons, injuries began to slow down The Cowboy. In 2012, he was forced to miss his first starts since his rookie season, 11 years earlier, when he sustained a torn triceps tendon in a December road win against the New England Patriots. Smith sat the final two games of the regular season before returning for the playoffs, helping San Francisco reach the Super Bowl they wound up losing to the Baltimore Ravens, 34-31.
While Smith was hampered with his arm injury, the other half of the team's vaunted pass rushing duo was also bothered with a physical ailment. Aldon Smith, who racked up 19.5 sacks during the regular season, required surgery in the offseason to repair a torn labrum he played with during the last two months of the season. All of Aldon's sacks came in first 13 games, and went sack-less over the 49ers' final six contests, including two playoff games and the Super Bowl.
In 2013, Justin Smith played in all 19 games, including the playoffs, despite suffering a shoulder injury earlier in the year.
"I can use my left arm this year, so I guess that's a plus," Smith said last October of the previous season.
Smith was listed on the injury report over the last five games of 2014 with a back issue, but still started all five. For the year, Smith played in 66.7 percent of the snaps, down from 73.3 and 87.8 percent over the previous two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. It was his lowest participation rate since PFF began tracking snap counts in 2007. His highest play rate came in 2007, when played in 97.7 percent of the snaps, his last year with the Bengals.
“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,” Tomsula said in the 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.”
Even with Smith playing hurt so often, the 49ers fielded a top-five defense in each season since 2011 under former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who took the same role with the Chicago Bears this offseason.
Smith signed a two-year extension in the summer of 2013, leaving one year remaining on his current deal that would have paid him $2.65 million in base salary with over $2 million in bonuses, according to Overthecap.com.
San Francisco drafted Smith's potential replacement in the first round of this year's draft in Oregon's Arik Armstead, who made his practice field debut over the weekend in the team's rookie minicamp. The 49ers also signed former Cardinal defensive end Darnell Dockett after cutting Ray McDonald in December following his second arrest of the year stemming from domestic violence allegations. A pair of 2013 draft picks, Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial, will also compete for playing time in Smith's stead this season.
Smith finished with 87 sacks and 613 tackles, while appearing in 217 of 221 games throughout his 14-year career.