Justin Smith: He’s That Good

| May 14, 2011

In recent days I’ve done some articles looking at players some felt were either dropped too far down my top 101 players, or were criminally overlooked.
 
Now it’s time to look at the guys some have said are overrated and where better to start than right up at the top with the player who finished at No. 2 on my rankings. San Francisco 49er, Justin Smith.
 
I understand some of the arguments as to why people doubt Smith belongs that high. That he plays for a failing franchise. That he plays in a position that isn’t that valuable. That he doesn’t have the stats to back up a ranking that high.
 
Well to that I say you’ve missed the point. So what if a guy plays for a bad team, that shouldn’t take away from an honest look at his individual performance. It hasn’t stopped Nnamdi Asomugha from being one of the best cornerbacks in the league, and didn’t stop Barry Sanders going down as an all time great.
 
And it doesn’t matter that Smith plays defensive end in a 3-4 alignment (moving inside in sub package defenses). This list was never about telling you what you already know – that quarterbacks are more valuable than any other position. No, this list was about identifying which players performed the most exceptionally at their position. As for stats? Well I always say they add context, but they don’t always speak the truth. So what if a player picked up 10 sacks and not much else. I’ll take the guy with five sacks but who beat a man every time and got a consistent amount of pressure all season long.
 
That’s what I say to the doubters. But it doesn’t answer the question of why Justin Smith rates so highly that I would call him my choice for Defensive Player of the Year. I will answer that now.
 

Sizable Gap

Let me start off by saying how much better Justin Smith was than any other 3-4 defensive end in 2010. In our grading scheme, we scored Smith a +44.9. That was an astonishing 29 points higher than the guy in second place. No other position had such a discrepancy between top and second place. Smith dominated the field.
 
Still, that could just mean it was a particularly bad year for 3-4 defensive ends. It wasn’t. In fact Smith’s grade was only bettered by three other non quarterbacks. None of whom was nearly as consistent as Smith week to week, throughout the season.
 
Looking further into our grading, Smith had an incredible 117 positively graded plays. That means he had a positive play on 14.34% of his 816 snaps. Adding to that, just 3.43% of his plays graded negatively. The table below shows how the rest of our top five 3-4 defensive ends from last year performed.
 

Top 5 3-4 Defensive Ends, Positive & Negative Plays

Player
Team
Snaps
Positively Graded Plays
Negatively Graded Plays
Positive %
Negative %
Justin SmithSF8161172814.34%3.43%
Cullen JenkinsGB571682711.91%4.73%
Shaun EllisNYJ832903810.82%4.57%
Stephen BowenDAL552601710.87%3.08%
Kendall LangfordMIA753784110.36%5.44%

 

Eats Running Backs for Breakfast

What’s more, while players like Bowen and Jenkins were predominantly pass rush specialists, Smith’s strongest skill came in how disruptive he was in the run game. Only Mike DeVito (+17.0) of the New York Jets got close to the +22.1 run defense grading Smith earned. You only have to look at the St Louis game in Week 16 to see how good Smith can be in run defense. Even with his worst pass rushing performance of the season, he was still able to pick up two tackles for loss and four for short gains (two of which forced the Rams off the field on third down).
 
Performances like that were the norm for Smith. Always active, he has an uncanny ability to get up field and disengage to nab a runner that looks to be moving past him. It won’t come as a surprise to any to see that he had six games in run defense where he graded “in the green”, including two of which that were over +5.0.
 
Even from a purely statistical point of view, there were only three defensive linemen who made more defensive stops all season than the 47 Smith managed. On every level, Smith was immense … and I haven’t even starting talking about the pass rushing side of his game yet.
 

Fear Him Too, Quarterbacks

The role Smith plays for the 49ers requires a mix of skills. Unlike standard 4-3 defensive ends, or defensive tackles, you’re not going up against a tackle or a guard, you’re going up against both. So it says something for Smith’s skill set that he got the better of both types of player and some of them were pretty good.
 
Ryan Clady is one of the league’s better tackles. Not just on potential or because he was a first round pick, but because he’s just a good player. We graded him negatively in pass protection on just three occasions, one of which was against the 49ers. His tormentor in chief? Justin Smith. The Bronco left tackle managed to limit Tamba Hali to just one sack and no other pressures in two games, while also holding Dwight Freeney and Terrell Suggs to two pressures each. Smith picked up three pressures, beating Clady on a bull rush and spin move to show his versatility.
 
Then you have the guards. Alan Faneca faced Smith twice (five quarterback disruptions given up) and can say with authority how hard it is to stop a guy who can burst through a gap like Smith does. Simply put, you can line him up pretty much anywhere on a defensive line, and he’ll cause problems for whoever he faces. He’s that good. You don’t get 56 quarterback disruptions (better than any 3-4 end or defensive tackle) without being so.
 
 
So when you look at Justin Smith, don’t look at a guy who picked up six sacks. Look at a guy who was able to beat tackles and guards routinely. Look at a guy who is more active than any 3-4 end or defensive tackle in the league when it comes to harassing ball carriers. Look at my No. 2 ranked player on the year and think, you know what, this is one extremely talented player.
 
Because he is.  And everyone should know it.
 
 

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