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Snap Judgments

Smith's big contract, Randy's silent moves and more

Posted: Saturday March 1, 2008 3:33PM; Updated: Sunday March 2, 2008 2:17AM
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Which Justin Smith will the 49ers be getting -- the menacing pass rusher from 2001 or the virtually nonexistent defender of 2007?
Which Justin Smith will the 49ers be getting -- the menacing pass rusher from 2001 or the virtually nonexistent defender of 2007?
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

It's only day two of the NFL's free agency period, and already this much is apparent: The San Francisco 49ers have it in mind to become the new Washington Redskins.

With the usually free-spending Redskins quiet except for the re-signing of valuable backup quarterback Todd Collins, it's the 49ers, who for a second year in a row, fit the profile of a bad team trying desperately to get better quickly through free agency.

Though it doesn't measure up to 2007 standards, when the 49ers spent big to add the likes of cornerback Nate Clements, safety Michael Lewis and linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and traded for receiver Darrell Jackson -- all with disappointing or low-impact results -- San Francisco hasn't exactly low-keyed so far this weekend.

Will the results be much different for the 49ers this year than they were last year? The deals certainly aren't as lucrative in most cases, but history tells us that trying to build too large of a portion of your roster through free agency is almost always a risky proposition. Just ask the Redskins, who have learned that lesson -- or not -- at least three different times this decade.

Let's start with the six-year, $45 million deal that the 49ers finalized Saturday with Bengals free-agent defensive end Justin Smith, which reportedly inclues $20 million guaranteed.

I'm not down on Smith. He's a good, solid player who has performed capably and almost always answered the bell in his seven seasons in Cincinnati. But if the 49ers think they've acquired the premier pass-rushing threat that they've been looking for throughout their five-year non-playoff streak, they're likely in for another letdown.

Smith is the kind of good-but-not-great player who gets paid extremely well in free agency simply because teams have money to burn and have to do something to show their fans they're trying to win. Consider the following:

• The 49ers just lavished big money on a free agent who played for a Bengals defense that finished dead last in the league in sacks, with 22. Smith had just two of those sacks, despite starting all 16 games for the sixth season in a row. San Francisco tied for 21st in sacks with 31. Was Smith an upgrade? It's at least debatable.

• Smith's career high in sacks (8) came in his rookie season of 2001, the year he was the No. 4 overall pick in the draft by the Bengals. He's had just 43.5 sacks in his seven seasons, or 6.2 per year. Breaking it down a little further, Smith has played in 111 career regular-season games, and he has averaged .39 sacks per game. Not exactly Deacon Jones territory.

• On the plus side, Smith won't turn 29 until late September, and he has led Bengals defensive linemen in tackles in each of the past six seasons. With his 107 consecutive starts, he's more proven to be eminently durable. But that's not the stuff of legend that you might expect from a player taken in the draft's top five.

It's more than notable that the player taken just three spots behind Smith in 2001 was defensive end Andre Carter. The 49ers drafted him, and the former Cal star hung up 32.5 sacks in his five seasons in San Francisco (2001-2005), or 6.4 per year, slightly more than Smith's career average. The 49ers lost Carter in free agency to Washington (there's that team again) in 2006, and you could certainly argue that retaining him might have been wiser than finding yourself in the position of having to throw big money at Smith two years later.

Smith is also going to be playing as a 3-4 defensive end in San Francisco, which can sometime make for a difficult transition for a pass rusher who has played his entire NFL career in the more tranditional 4-3 formation. He might struggle with that, until he gets the hang of the new role, which can sometimes frustrate players who have been edge rushers.

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