Justin Smith, one of the most unheralded great NFL players since the turn of the century, has decided to retire. The San Francisco 49ers announced the news Monday, ending months of speculation about Smith's future.
Smith cited his waning physical skills as the reason he will no longer keep playing.
"When you get on the bald tires, you're on the bald tires ... it was just time for me to move on," Smith told reporters.
Smith gained respect around the league for his ability to set the edge, move inside and out, and take up blockers. He was known as one of the strongest players in the NFL, absolutely destroying opposing interior linemen in the run game.
San Francisco's signing of Smith in 2008 turned out to be one of the best free agent pickups of the last decade. He was a dominant force up front for the Niners and set the tone for a physical defense. Smith began to get his national attention when he moved to the 49ers and keyed some of their playoff appearances. After a string of game-changing plays, Smith finished third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2011.
"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," 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula said in a statement.
Smith was a tough player to put in a box. That 2011 season is a great example; he finished as a second team All-Pro choice at defensive end, while making the first team at defensive tackle. He finished as a second team All-Pro selection two other seasons. Those are the types of players that get considered for the Hall of Fame, even if Smith is a longshot to ever be a finalist.
Smith made 185 consecutive starts at one point of his career, and only missed two games to injury in 14 seasons. He was on the field less in 2014 and had repeatedly said he didn't want to become a part-time player.
The 49ers have been readying for this moment. They signed Darnell Dockett and drafted Arik Armstead in the first round. Still, San Francisco's defensive identity has been completely changed since last season ended. Patrick Willis, Smith, and Chris Borland are all gone. Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati have departed on offense.
Smith held a conference call with reporters on Monday, which is typical of his style. While most NFL players would love the adulation and attention while saying goodbye, Smith is happiest out of the spotlight.
"You guys ain't gonna get me in a room and make me cry," Smith said.