Insider analysis: Justin Smith

The 49ers laid down the big bucks this weekend for free agent Justin Smith, making him the highest-paid defensive lineman in team history with a blockbuster $45 million deal. But, since he's a traditional 4-3 end who'll be trying to make an impact in a 3-4 scheme, can Smith get the job done and live up to his fat contract? NFL analyst Lane Adkins spends some time at SFI to tell us all about Smith.

Lane Adkins, OBR Football Analyst, www.theOBR.com: Justin Smith, after spending seven seasons at defensive end with the Cincinnati Bengals, now lands in a defensive scheme which will challenge his talents.

As a member of the Bengals, Smith was a solid but far from spectacular player as the team's starting right defensive end. A very solid run defender, Smith has not progressed into the consistent and dominant pass rushing presence the Bengals had hoped for when selecting him with the fourth overall pick in the 2001 draft out of Missouri.

In his seven seasons as a member of the Bengals, Smith averaged slightly more than six sacks per season, while playing within a defensive scheme that was not best suited for his physical abilities.

Smith relies on speed and quickness to make an impact on game day. In San Francisco, Smith will have the opportunity to move into the outside linebacker role, which could be a significant match in utilizing his athletic qualities.

While a member of the Bengals, Smith has been subjected to dropping into coverage from his defensive end position and has displayed the natural instincts to be effective in this facet of the game with further exposure.

Interestingly, Smith should have the opportunity to rush the quarterback from the standup position, which he displayed an effectiveness at early in his career in Cincinnati.

As the 49ers look to improve the overall quality and depth of the defense, Justin Smith is an intriguing acquisition and one which could complement a defensive front seven already sporting the likes of up-and-coming talents Patrick Willis and Manny Lawson.

Craig Massei's take: Considering the spectacular price tag, at first glance you wonder exactly where Smith fits in with the 49ers for all that money. Sure, he's a solid starting talent - but that's as a standard end in a 4-3 set. If the 49ers expect Smith to play end in a base 3-4 defense, he seems a bit undersized and doesn't figure to be able to maximize his pass-rushing skills from that position. But, as Adkins suggests, the 49ers plan to use him as an edge player as sort of a hybrid end/standup outside linebacker, it could be a role in which he flourishes and provides San Francisco's defense with some sorely needed pop on the edge. Smith is no doubt a consistent, top-tier player who, if he's a notch below star quality, certainly has the makeup and skills to step his game up to that level. He's durable, strong against the run, a quality locker room presence and a guy with a motor who isn't going to be taking any plays off. The 49ers needed to find a top defensive end in free agency, and Smith was easily one of the best - if not the very best - available. But what the team needs as much as anything from that position is a consistently improved pass rush, and Smith, for all of his talent, never has produced double-digit sack totals in any of his seven NFL seasons. In fact, in the past six years, he's failed to match the career-high total of 8.5 he recorded in his rookie season of 2001. Smith produced at least five sacks in every season since then before falling off to a career-low two sacks last season, but that low total seemed to be a result of circumstances within the Cincinnati defense last year. Smith is capable of better, and that's what the 49ers need to get out of him. And that's the key to making this expensive buy a good buy - the 49ers have to put Smith in a optimum positions to excel, whether that means standing him up on the edge or even dropping him back into an outside linebacker role in a true 3-4. Or, as has been suggested, the 49ers could mix in some base 4-3 sets, where Smith will hold up admirably against the run and go 1-on-1 against tackles on passing downs. The 49ers can't just plug him in at right end in a 3-4 and expect to get the kind of big production for which they ostensibly are paying. They will have to be creative with their fronts and do different things with Smith to maximize his ability, and that means the men who paid Smith that big contract have their work cut out for them.


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