Justin Smith said Wednesday he feels more healthy and fresh at this point in the season than he has in years. But the veteran defensive lineman hasn’t decided whether he will return next year for a 15th season.
“I haven’t given it a thought,” said Smith, who has one more year on his contract and who, at 35, is older than every 49er except kicker Phil Dawson. “It will be something to think about after the season.”
In the past, Smith has said he didn’t want to be the type of veteran who overstays his welcome. When his play starts to diminish, the man teammates call “Cowboy” will ride quietly into the sunset.
It doesn’t appear that time has arrived.
Two of Smith’s best performances this season came in late November games against the Giants and Washington. Smith has started every contest this season, leads the team – along with Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch – with five sacks and has more tackles, 36, than any other 49ers defensive linemen.
According to the scouting service Pro Football Focus, Smith ranks sixth among 48 defensive tackles who play in 3-4 schemes. Finally, the 49ers’ defense ranks fourth in the league despite long absences from standout players like Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Glenn Dorsey.
For that, Justin Smith credited defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and a cast of young players like Lynch and inside linebacker Chris Borland who have stepped into bigger-than-expected roles.
“Borland’s come in there, done some stuff you really can’t teach,” Smith said. “I think he’s going to be a special player down the road. And guys are playing well in the back end, and up front, too. This defense is not going to fold our tents up just based off what’s happened. Guys have responded and young guys have played well. We’ve got young guys in the secondary coming in. So hats off to those guys. They’ve kept the level up there.”
During the 2012 season, Smith suffered a torn triceps tendon on Dec. 16, an injury that weakened him in the playoffs and especially the Super Bowl. Last year, he suffered a shoulder injury during training camp but still played through the season. He had surgery in the offseason.
This year hasn’t been nearly as difficult.
“Especially compared to the last two years, I feel a lot better,” Smith said. “Hopefully, we can get it rolling, get this thing back on track and make a run here.”
Adding to his freshness: His snap count is down – he’s played 536 defensive snaps this year vs. 607 at this point last season – and he is practicing less.
Smith has not taken part in Wednesday practice sessions in recent years. Recently, he’s started to take both Wednesday and Thursday off. Smith typically works out on his own while his teammates are on the field.
He said he’s consulted with the 49ers coaches and trainers and they’ve told him to do whatever he feels allows him to play his best on Sundays.
“I’m not going to learn any new techniques at this stage,” he said, “so we’ll see what happens.”
Perhaps the biggest reason he’s noncommittal about next season is that he believes there’s plenty more to come this season.
“We’ve got this one (Sunday) and three more after that,” he said. “That still puts us in the show. We’re right where we need to be.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.