How Much Should the San Francisco 49ers Expect from Justin Smith in 2014?

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How Much Should the San Francisco 49ers Expect from Justin Smith in 2014?
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Yes, 49ers fans—expect plenty of happily crazed reactions from D-line coach Jim Tomsula and head coach Jim Harbaugh for Justin Smith in 2014.

When it comes to San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith, assigning expectations and actively monitoring them during the season would amount to a rather unnecessary undertaking.

Much the way Smith himself feels about using Twitter, it just isn’t something you do.

The man teammates and coaches refer to as the “Cowboy” embodies everything that makes a reliable producer on the gridiron.

Beginning with the final two games of his 2001 rookie campaign with the Cincinnati Bengals, Smith went full iron man by starting the next 176. The streak endured through 10 consecutive seasons and parts of two others.

Most importantly, the last four-plus campaigns all came with Smith sporting the red and gold. He muscled through 78 straight weeks without missing a single game for the 49ers.

Bill Haber/Associated Press/Associated Press
Oh, the familiar site of Justin Smith manhandling New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees with one arm.

It wasn’t until Week 15 of 2012 that Smith finally succumbed to what normal humans suffer all the time—a physical injury. And even then a serious triceps tear only sidelined him for two regular-season games.

Compromised effectiveness or not, him manning up for all three playoff contests—including Super Bowl XLVII—was testament to his courage, toughness and generally immortal-like nature.

Smith then reclaimed maximum capacity in time for the 2013 season. He rebounded to the tune of 49 tackles, 6.5 sacks and Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) sixth-highest pass-rushing score among 3-4 defensive ends.

He played all 16 games and another three in the postseason. There he registered a top-three grade from PFF in run defense and also collected nine quarterback hurries.

Credit: Pro Football Focus
Niners DE Justin Smith ranking among the NFL upper echelon per usual.

Yet, Smith totaled just 796 snaps, by far the fewest since his 49ers career began in 2008. He had previously racked up, from 2008 to 2012, snap totals of 1,026, 977, 818, 947 and 840.

The fundamental cog to San Francisco’s defense will clearly retain fresh legs and increased effectiveness the more rest he gets as he advances into his mid-30s. He turns 35 on Sept. 30, which is just five days before the Niners suit up against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 5.

So, as it pertains to this upcoming 2014 campaign as a whole, how much will the additional rest bolster No. 94? With capable reinforcements along the defensive line, how much should the 49ers expect from Smith this year?

Dave Martin/Associated Press
Such a mustache transcends the power of words uttered by us ephemerally inclined humans.

The primary asset in line for his playing time will materialize in the form of Cornellius “Tank” Carradine.

Selected No. 40 overall in Round 2 of the 2013 NFL draft, Carradine saw his stock diminished after tearing his ACL in late November of 2012. But his fall wasn’t too extensive, as the Florida State senior had the benefit of 11 sacks and 13 tackles for loss on his side.

Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk aptly described Carradine as “more than just a one-dimensional pass-rusher.” He noted his prowess in run defense and his Seminoles-leading 80 tackles during his final college season.

Fast-forwarding a bit, the 49ers coaching staff redshirted him as a rookie in 2013. He then had scar tissue removed in January of this year and is now the healthiest—and strongest—he’s been in some time.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
We don't know about you, but Mr. Carradine appears sufficiently frightening—and he's not even in his full gridiron battle armor.

“I was able to get a full range of motion in my knee, I was able to bend it,” Carradine said to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. “I also got the strength back in my leg.”

Barrows further noted that he’s “back on track to resume the role everyone expected him to have last year, which is a backup to starters Smith and Ray McDonald and perhaps as an inside rusher on passing downs.”

Carradine himself revealed he’s gained nearly 20 pounds during an interview on 95.7 The Game back in early May. At 6’4”, 295 pounds, he would qualify as a carbon copy of Smith—at the very least possessing the physical frame needed as a bruiser in the trenches.

However, Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio tempered expectations during an offseason presser last month. He quipped—in his usual frank manner—that Carradine is “not much different than a rookie coming in right now.” Not having participated in a single padded practice would certainly indicate as much.

Well, what should 49ers fans make of that guarded forecast? Will Carradine and fellow redshirt sophomore Quinton Dial not make a substantial impact and take snaps away from Smith in 2014?

With all due respect to the venerable Fangio, we’ll characterize his words as more coach speak than a revelatory prediction for this season. Depending on who makes this stacked roster, the two “rookies,” and/or solid backups Demarcus Dobbs and Tony Jerod-Eddie, will see significant action on the gridiron.

That said, Smith remains unquestionably the pre-eminent lineman of this group.

He might only log 650 or so snaps in a fairly regimented capacity. But those 650 or so snaps in a fairly regimented capacity will be as big as ever for the Super Bowl-contending 49ers.

The Paul Bunyan of a man will still occupy multiple offensive linemen and destroy the opposition’s running backs. He’ll still beat said double-teams and notch a respectable number of takedowns of enemy quarterbacks. And Patrick Willis and the linebacker corps will still receive maximum opportunity to make plays because of Smith’s presence in the trenches.

As for specific numbers, let’s opt for 35-plus tackles, 4.5 sacks, two tackles for loss and, for throwback’s sake, one interception off a tipped pass.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
See—even Justin predicts he'll snag himself an interception for the Red and Gold this year.

After embarking on a somewhat ominous path when projecting Vernon Davis’ stats on Thursday, let’s hope the Red and Gold faithful take solace in this positive outlook.

At least everyone can agree Smith won’t be tweeting about it anytime soon.

All team and player statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference and Sports-Reference, unless otherwise noted. Advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Joe Levitt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, waxing academic, colloquial and statistical eloquence on the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him on Twitter @jlevitt16

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