Where Does Justin Smith Rank Among Missouri Tigers’ Best Pro Players Ever?


After months of speculation, San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith officially announced his retirement from football on Monday. Smith leaves the NFL having played 14 distinguished seasons in which he made five Pro Bowls and recorded 87 sacks.

Smith, a native of Jefferson City, Missouri, played three years at Mizzou before declaring for the NFL Draft following his junior year. He was selected fourth overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2001, making him the first first-round pick from Missouri since tackle John Clay was selected by the Oakland Raiders in 1987. So with Smith’s long NFL career now finished, it begs the question: where does he rank among the greatest pro players ever to come out of the Missouri football program?

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Mizzou has two Pro Football Hall of Famers, longtime Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow and St. Louis Cardinals cornerback Roger Wehrli, who are often seen as the program’s best-ever NFL players. An argument can also certainly be made for Russ Washington, a mammoth of a man at 6-foot-6 and 289 pounds who had monstrous size before it was available en masse around the league. Washington was a starting defensive tackle for the San Diego Chargers in his first two years as a pro before going on to become the Chargers’ starting right tackle on offense for the next 13 years, starting 196 games over 15 total seasons. Washington was a five-time Pro Bowler and was part of four playoff teams in the last four seasons of his career.

One other player, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Andy Russell, could probably be thrown into the conversation as well. An undersized linebacker who was taken in the 16th round of the 1963 draft, Russell went on to play in 168 regular season games plus 11 playoff contests over 12 seasons, being named a Pro Bowler seven times and acting as a key part of two Super Bowl teams in 1974 and 1975.

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Smith missed out on the opportunity to showcase himself in the postseason as a Bengal, playing in just one postseason game (a wild card loss in 2005) over his seven-year tenure in Cincinnati. Though he consistently recorded respectable sack totals, he really was not utilized properly, as the Bengals used him as a pass-rushing defensive end off the edge.

After moving to San Francisco as a free agent in 2008, Smith became more valuable, as he was converted to the “five-technique” defensive end/tackle hybrid role. Smith gained weight and got up to around 285 pounds, and though he moved into a less flashy role, rushing from the interior and taking on significant run-stopping responsibility, he was one of the best players in the league at the position.

Smith’s best season was in 2011, when he had 7.5 sacks, 58 total tackles, three forced fumbles, and two passes defended for a 49ers team that went to the NFC Championship Game. That year marked his return to the postseason, and he collected two sacks and ten total tackles over the Niners’ two playoff games.

As the 49ers went to the Super Bowl before losing to the Baltimore Ravens in 2012, Smith was once again a major contributor, collecting 12 tackles in three games. He had another 13 tackles over the 49ers’ playoff run in 2013.

Judging based upon Pro Football Reference’s metric, “Career Approximate Value”, which factors in 100 percent of the approximate value (basically a football version of WAR) of the player’s best season, 95 percent of the approximate value of their next-best season, and reductions of five percent for each lower-ranked season thereafter, Smith is the best Mizzou product in NFL history. That’s quite interesting considering that both Smith and Wehrli played 14 seasons, so the metric wouldn’t be skewed in Smith’s favor.

As an interior pass rusher who never put up double-digit sack totals, Smith is unlikely to be a Hall-of-Famer, so that will provide a lasting edge in Wehrli and Winslow’s favor. But as a guy who was among the best two or three players in the league at his position for five or six years and was a key factor on a perennial postseason team, Smith’s success should not be overlooked. Smith may not be the greatest Mizzou product ever to grace the NFL with his presence, but with players like Jeremy Maclin and Sean Weatherspoon now on the back ends of their careers without having had near the same level of success that Smith had, it’s safe to say that Smith will end up being the greatest player among this modern era of Mizzou products.

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