TUESDAY, 10:05am: The 49ers have officially announced in a press release that Willis is retiring.
MONDAY, 2:14pm: Speaking to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, Smith said today that he still isn’t quite ready to formally announce his retirement.
“I’m going to decide by next week probably,” Smith said. “So you’ll know by then. It’s not 100 percent.”
Multiple reports have indicated that Smith will call it a career, but only the veteran defender himself can make that decision official. Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports notes (via Twitter) that the 49ers would be willing to explore options to limit the physical toll on Smith if he wanted to come back.
9:57am: According to Florio, Willis will in fact retire, with a formal announcement expected to come on Tuesday. Florio confirms that Smith will also call it a career, meaning two longtime cornerstones for the 49ers defense will retire this offseason.
Smith, 35, spent seven years in San Francisco after a seven-year stint with the Bengals. For his career, he appeared in 221 total regular season contests, racking up 87 total sacks and earning spots in five consecutive Pro Bowls from 2009 to 2013.
Willis, who played and started 112 games for the Niners, averaged nearly 119 tackles per season during his NFL career, even taking into account his abridged 2014 campaign.
9:18am: The big 49ers news hinted at by Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk earlier today appears to involve linebacker Patrick Willis. According to Rand Getlin of Yahoo! Sports (via Twitter), the 49ers are bracing for the loss of Willis, who is expected to retire from the NFL.
While the Niners had been preparing for the possibility that veteran defensive end Justin Smith decides to call it a career this winter, the news of Willis potentially deciding to end his career comes as a surprise. Prior to a 2014 season cut short by injury, Willis had earned a spot in the Pro Bowl in each of his even seasons, and only turned 30 years old in January.
However, when he landed on the injured reserve list back in November, Willis revealed that the toe on which he was undergoing surgery had been a chronic issue, limiting his effectiveness for years.
“I don’t look to play this game for just another year,” Willis told Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com at the time. “I feel like I have five or six more great years of football left in my body. Unfortunately, this toe was telling me otherwise.”
We’ve yet to hear from Willis himself that he’ll retire, and even if he does decide to bow out of the NFL, it’s not clear that it’s entirely due to the toe issues. However, given his stated desire to play “five or six more” seasons, the veteran linebacker presumably wouldn’t announce his retirement unless he felt his body wouldn’t allow him to continue playing.
With two years still left on his contract, Willis is due a salary north of $7MM for 2015, so if he were to retire, the 49ers would create about $7.425MM in cap savings. While the loss of Willis in the middle of their defense would be significant, the Niners appear to have uncovered a gem in 2014 draftee Chris Borland, who could start for the team alongside NaVorro Bowman in 2015.
A recent report suggested San Francisco was shopping inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite, who stepped in as a starter for the club last season when Bowman and Willis were injured. If Willis does retire, the team may be more inclined to keep Wilhoite in the mix rather than selling him off for a late-round draft pick.