NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
An ACL tear during the 2013 preseason brought Will Smith’s 10-year run with the New Orleans Saints to an unceremonious end. But the former Pro Bowl pass-rusher is looking to start anew with the New England Patriots in 2014.
He just may not start.
It’s an understandable reality for the 32-year-old, released by New Orleans in early February. Despite the 120 starts and 139 regular-season contests under his belt, expectations for the five-time defensive captain are as tempered as the one-year, $855,000 contract he signed in May.
A stark contrast from the $3 million in base salary he was due in 2013, Smith is no longer the player who amassed 33.5 sacks over his first four NFL campaigns. He is no longer the player who forged through left tackles for 13 sacks along the way to a Super Bowl victory in 2009.
Yet for head coach Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and Patriots defensive front, what Smith currently is could be enough to make a difference.
Situated behind defensive ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and their Pro Football Focus-leading 2,256 snaps in 2013, the 2004 first-round pick has an opportunity to excel under a lesser capacity than the one he’s accustomed to. He has an opportunity to earn a title unlike the one’s he’s earned before.
It’s a role the likes of seventh-round pick Michael Buchanan and Andre Carter exchanged during the 2013 season. It’s not a role prominent in volume, rather in ensuring the defense gets off the field on third down.
It’s about generating pressure from different angles, like loading speed to one side of the line.
Or evenly dispersing heat from both sides of the line.
And for Smith, who netted 1,007 snaps, six sacks and 58 total tackles in 2012, it could be his niche.
But he’ll have to do more with less. He’ll have to stand apart among the youth. He’ll have to harness some semblance of what he was just two years ago.
Two years ago, Smith was a full-time seven-technique right defensive end in the New Orleans front. He was a straight-liner for then-coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense – a unit which was tied for 25th in sack production and ranked last against the run.
The collective performance wasn’t conducive to three-and-outs, yet Smith gleaned moments of his old self. Although his brightest moments occurred when quarterbacks overstayed their welcome, when offensive tackles allowed a free release, and when a tight end was staying in to block, Smith did his part as well.
He found his way into backfields.
He was a heavy-handed lineman then, at 31 years old, relying on physicality and clubbing bull rush to disengage from pass protection. He was a player who won with force first, swim and spin moves second. He wasn’t a player who flexed the edge underneath the outstretched arms of kick-sliding bookends. He wasn’t a player who set the edge with the pad level to disrupt consistently.
Yet every so often, he caught his opponents by surprise.
Perhaps he could surprise once again in New England.
Now Smith isn’t carved in the same mold as his fellow Patriots defensive ends. He doesn’t play with the weak-side length and burst of a Jones or a Buchanan; he doesn’t play with the strong-side stamina of a Ninkovich.
He plays – and looks – like a three-technique defensive tackle, thriving with contact instead of space. In some sense, though, the way he plays and looks has added a layer to his positional flexibility.
He’s been there before.
Smith’s experience rotating to defensive tackle could carry over in Foxborough, where the line has been known to shift appearance and technique on any given down and distance. And while he’s not as quick as he once was, his versatility may very well separate him.
Smith could add a size dynamic to three-defensive end sets, playing on the interior, diversifying third-down pressure both inside and out. He could offer the likes of Jones and Buchanan a shot to merge inside as nickel rushers versus the pass. He could relieve Jones and Ninkovich for a series in the base defense.
His strength, along with his ability to stack and shred, leave options open.
Yet wherever No. 90 aligns, and however many snaps he takes with whom and when, he’ll have to fend off pass-rushers 10 years his junior. He’ll have to work symbiotically with those accompanying him. He’ll have to prove that his skill set isn’t a redundant one.
And, above all, he’ll have to show shades of the player he was before injury.
There are no guarantees that Smith will be able to do so. There are no guarantees that he’ll make the 53-man roster. But when you revisit his film, you’re led to believe there’s something left.
Time will tell if it’s utilizable.