- Paul Gutierrez, ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. –- Justin Smith is entering the home stretch of his standout 14-year career.
He’s just not sure if he’ll return to the San Francisco 49ers for a 15th season…yet.
“To be honest, I haven’t given it any thought,” Smith said this week. “It will be something I think about after the season.
“Hopefully we can get this thing rolling, get back on track and make a run at it.”
Smith, who plays end in the Niners’ base 3-4 defense, is tied with linebackers Ahmad Brooks and rookie Aaron Lynch for the team lead in sacks with five. The 35-year-old Smith has also taken advantage of having a veteran’s day off on Wednesdays from practice and has been taking Thursdays off as well to keep him fresh.
It’s paying off, though defensive coordinator Vic Fangio insists the breaks are not the difference. Smith being healthy is the key.
“Last year, he was playing with half an arm,” Fangio said. “I forget which arm it was. I think it was his left. This year, he’s playing with a healthy body.
“I actually see a better player than last year because of the health. And I’m sure he’s down a decibel or two from where he was in 2011, but not very much. It would be a shame if he did retire for all of us because he’s still playing at a very high level. I expect him to make the Pro Bowl again, and expect you guys to lead the charge five years when he’s done playing to get him up in Canton.”
Yes, as in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, after five (and counting) Pro Bowls and a first-team All-Pro selection. A partially torn triceps late in 2012 hindered him before he suffered a shoulder injury in training camp in 2013.
This year? As Fangio said, Smith has been healthy. And rested come Sundays.
This weekend, the 7-5 Niners will try to steady themselves against the Oakland Raiders, who have the worst record in the NFL at 1-11.
“I know I’m going against Donald Penn,” Smith said, “and he’s a heck of a football player. Everybody else can take them lightly, but the players in the locker room know what we’re up against.”
And Fangio knows how tough the road would be next season if Smith decides to retire. So he’s already scheming to bring him back.
“If I have to go to Missouri and drink a beer with him, I’ll do that,” Fangio said.
Added rookie linebacker Chris Borland: “I’ll be on the same flight.”
The defense, with Smith leading the charge, is already on the same page.
He's just not sure if he'll return to the San Francisco 49ers for a 15th season yet.