Justin Smith: Good move or bad move?

With 2009 free agency set to begin at the end of this month, SFI looks back at the 49ers'main moves in free agency last year and how they worked out for the team. Did they help, did they hurt and/or did they make a difference? Did the 49ers make out, make do or would they like a do-over? Today: Defensive lineman Justin Smith, who cost the 49ers big bucks last March.

The 49ers hoped Justin Smith would be the missing link along their defensive line to push their defense into the NFL's upper echelon when they signed him last year to a blockbuster six-year, $45 million deal that included $20 million in guaranteed money.

By the end of a tumultuous season that saw many changes within San Francisco's defense, the 49ers had climbed from 25th in the NFL in total defense during 2007 to a final No. 13 ranking last season, and the dynamic presence of Smith along the defensive front was one of the major reasons why.

The 49ers got optimum production from Smith throughout the season, using him at seven different positions early in the year as former head coach Mike Nolan tinkered with several different schemes and formations to put Smith in the best position possible to maximize his talent and production.

As it turns out, the best thing the 49ers could have done was leave Smith alone at right end in their 3-4 defense, a spot from which he did most of his damage and had one of the best seasons, overall, of any player on the San Francisco roster.

That's exactly what the 49ers did once Nolan was fired in October and interim head coach Mike Singletary and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky simplified the defensive structure to leave Smith most often at his starting right end position.

Smith, known for his non-stop motor, proved to be a force throughout the season and his relentless play contributed mightily to San Francisco's defensive improvement by the end of the season.

Smith finished with seven sacks – 1.5 below his career high – and he was the team's runaway leader with 57 quarterback pressures, 20 more than any player on the team.

The 49ers could count on Smith to continually get in the face of opposing quarterbacks, something they needed to upgrade along their defensive line from recent seasons. Smith also was his usual strong presence against the run and finished fourth on the team with 104 tackles to lead all San Francisco defensive linemen.

Smith also knocked down four passes, forced a fumble and had his first interception since his rookie season with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2001.

Perhaps a bit light for a 3-4 end at 285 pounds, Smith – a muscle-bound strongman – certainly didn't play like it and held his ground against bigger offensive linemen.

Smith made the players around him on defense better, and San Francisco coaches certainly took notice. At the end of his debut season with the team, Smith was the recipient of the Bill Walsh Award, given annually to the team's most valuable player as selected by coaches.

The Smith breakdown

Age: 29

The price tag: Signed a six-year deal worth $45 million with $20 guaranteed

What he brought to the team: Smith's nonstop motor became a regular feature of the San Francisco defense as he rarely took off a play while starting all 16 games to stretch his streak of consecutive games played to 127. Was one of the team's most disruptive defensive forces and finished the season with seven sacks and a team-leading 57 quarterback pressures to go along with 104 tackles, which ranked fourth on the team and led all San Francisco defensive lineman. Also became a leader on the squad by virtue of veteran experience and lead-by-example performance.

Did he make a difference: No question about it. Smith was one of San Francisco's best defensive players, as evidenced by his team MVP honor at the end of the season, and made an undeniable impact on a defense that greatly improved from the start of the season to the end of it.

Where the team would have been without him: The 49ers would have had a hole at right defensive end that would have had to be filled by a less productive and capable player. Smith was one of San Francisco's defensive mainstays throughout the season.

His future as a 49er: Signed for five more years, Smith doesn't turn 30 until after the 2009 season begins and is one of the core players the 49ers are building their defense around for at least the next few seasons.

The verdict

While the consensus around the NFL last year was that Smith is a good player, there was a general belief that the 49ers overpaid with top dollar for a veteran that was somewhat below star level. But Smith proved his worth throughout the season, and while he doesn't have the size to be a dominant defensive lineman in a 3-4 system, he makes up for it with his tenacity and overachieving play. Smith could have a Pro Bowl berth in his future as the San Francisco defense improves around him, and he lived up in many ways to the high expectations that came with the huge contract he signed to become a 49er. Despite the hefty price, signing Smith proved to be a good move for the 49ers in just about every way.

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