Justin Smith

After 14 seasons in the NFL, Justin Smith is still finding it difficult to make up his mind about returning for one more season with the San Francisco 49ers.

Smith, 35 (will turn 36 in September), has been practicing away from the team and seems to be in excellent shape, although hasn’t taken part in all of the team’s activities regarding offseason (voluntary) workouts. The 5-time Pro Bowl selection and one time first team All-Pro has a contract for next season ($6.4 million cap hit), but still undecided about whether to retire or not.

One of the best defensive lineman of the last decade, Smith has been with the 49ers since 2008 and along with Aldon Smith has formed one of the best pass rushing duos in the league over the last four or five years. He has 87 sacks in his career, 43.5 of them with the Niners and the others from his time with the Bengals, his team for the first seven years in the league.

The Niners might be hinting that they’re ready to move on by drafting Arik Armstead in the first round of the draft, but both the player and the team suggests it has nothing to do with Smith’s decision. The Niners needed help in the defensive line (and a lot of other places too), so they went with Armstead, while Smith can feel free to keep mulling his decision.

One of the factors is obviously his healthy. Despite playing all 32 games in 2013 and 2014, Smith has often been playing through injuries. He has missed only three games in his 14-year NFL career, not letting anyone know how banged up he really is, especially in recent seasons. Right now he’s feeling great, but Smith knows better: Everyone feels great this time of year.

If Smith does retire, he’ll be a very difficult player to replace. Not just in terms of his ability, but his leadership and experience on the field. He can still do more than just contribute but like a lot of NFL players recently, deciding between playing a little bit longer and fearing not being able to walk without pain later in your life makes it a very difficult decision.

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