Another 49ers legend departed Monday, when Justin Smith announced his retirement after 14 seasons.
The 35-year-old Smith is the second veteran member of the defense to retire this offseason, as chronic foot problems forced Patrick Willis to do likewise in March. It won’t be easy to replace either player, but finding a successor to Smith presents a particularly challenging task.
“They always want you to keep playing this and that, and I wanted to keep playing it as well,” Smith said in a conference call. “But when you get on the bald tires, you’re on the bald tires, you know.”
“Justin has earned the respect of the entire NFL community and he will always be remembered as one of the 49ers all-time greats,” CEO Jed York said in a statement.
Smith, who is known for his dry wit, is unsure of what’s next.
“I’ll just figure it out, stick with what I know and stay around the game as much as I can,” Smith said. “I don’t know if that’s coaching or maybe York wants to give me a good price on ownership with the Niners. I’m kidding. Kid. I kid. You know, I don’t know. I just imagine whatever it is, it’ll be something football related.”
Smith enjoyed one of the most productive careers in the team’s modern history. He earned five Pro Bowl selections in his seven seasons with the team.
“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,” general manager Trent Baalke said.
Even though it comes late in the offseason, the decision was years in the making. Due to an array of injuries to his elbow, shoulder and triceps, Smith had been discussing the possibility of retiring with the 49ers decision-makers in each of the last two offseasons.
In order to fill the Cowboy-sized void, the 49ers will turn first to Darnell Dockett. The 33-year-old defensive end is a three-time Pro Bowler, but he also missed the entire 2014 season after tearing his ACL last August.
Glenn Dorsey, who has the skill set to play all over the defensive line, also stands to benefit from the void that Smith leaves behind.
“As a football coach, you will always be searching for the next Justin Smith, knowing full well that you’ll never find a player quite like him,” head coach Jim Tomsula said.
One of Smith’s most valuable skills was the versatility he provided for the defensive front. In 2011, Smith made history as he became the first player to ever make the Associated Press’ All-Pro team at two positions. He landed on the first team as a defensive tackle and on the second team as a defensive end.