Will Smith Could Bring Sub-Package Power to Patriots Defense

After missing the 2013 season with a torn ACL, veteran pass-rusher Will Smith is vying to return to form in a new uniform. (USA Today Sports Images)

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.

Sub-package rusher.

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.

(NFL Game Rewind)

Or evenly dispersing heat from both sides of the line.

(NFL Game Rewind)

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.

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23 Responses to “Will Smith Could Bring Sub-Package Power to Patriots Defense”

  1. Avinash says:

    I think Smith can bring some power to the defense.He is good at his work.Hope to see some changes soon.

  2. DMC413 says:

    Getting frustrated with Armstead… Don’t get me wrong I wish no illness on anyone but come on already, is he healthy to play this year or what?!?!?!

  3. Milo says:

    When will we realise Ninkovich is not a starting callibur DE? Love the guy. He is all grit. But there are ends out there ripping twenty sacks a season.

    • Nuf Ced says:

      Umm yeah ok…

      For context since the “sack” became an official stat a 20 sack season has only occurred 9 times. Pass rushers are hard to find; guys with the skill level to approach 20 sacks are rarer still. Would you have paid Jared Allen 4/$32 or Julius Peppers 3/$27? They aren’t 20 sack guys at this stage but were the best available… I’ll take Nink and with the savings get Revis

      I agree that Nink may be overrated by Pats fans he is consistent, relentless and healthy so he is more than adequate.

    • DMC413 says:

      As it appears and I hope his progress keeps projecting upwards Chandler Jones in our # 1 when it comes to DE’s, not to many teams out there that have 2 studs for DE’s, now that I think about it not to many have what we have as DE’s. Not to mention Nik’s versatility being able to play some LB and be adequate at it!!

    • MaineMan says:

      Nink had 8 sacks in 2013 (and in 2012) and recorded more pressures per rush, coming mostly from the strong side, than Jones. Nink was also the 5th ranked DE in run defense in 2013, according to PFF.

      He’s also a more than “adequate” OLB. In his first three seasons with the Pats (playing OLB pretty much full time), he matched Vrabel’s first three seasons with the Pats, stat-for-stat, and Vrabel had much more actual playing experience before moving from the Steelers to the Pats.

      All of which makes Nink highly valuable in a Belchick defense (where EVERYbody needs to be good in run-D). If you’re looking for a pin-your-ears-back, sack-compiling rush-DE, you really need to find another defense to watch.

  4. Jack says:

    Nice article. I don’t have my hopes up for Smith, though. Unlike Carter when the Pats first picked him up, who had been played out of position at Washington which in turn lead to a misleadingly down year, Smith doesn’t seem likely to have many surprises left in him.

  5. FBfanATIC says:

    People are freaking out about “LB depth” and saying nickel defense like it’s still a package that isn’t played often. Today’s teams are all 3wide and/or have a quick pass catching TE that’s DRAFTED because they can beat LBs & Safties on a constant basis. Belichick is building a Nickel/Dime BASE defense to deal with the teams of today.

    They can still play 3LB in nickel; with a bigger 3DL setup in front. The “sub package” term relates more to down and distance in today’s NFL; so Smith is used as above in 3rd down or passing situations. I’m hoping he can come in and make a differance, and that it was indeed just the secondary that needed tweaking. But Manning had ALL DAY to throw in Denver.

    • Jack says:

      That is for sure about Denver having all day to throw against the Pats. That’s where the addition of Revis, Browner, Easley, and hopefully a healthy Tommy Kelly as well as Armstead could make a difference. The improvement in defensive backs should make it easier to blitz, and with inside pass rushers to complement Jones and Nink, the Pats D has the potential to be a lot more troublesome to Peyton and co. this time around.

  6. J H TARBORO says:

    WR Andre Johnson won’t report to the Texan mini-camp, it time for the Pats to get aggressive and pull the trigger to try to acquire Johnson’s services. I would try to package Mallett and someone else instead of a draft pick, maybe Amendola or Ridley?

    • DMC413 says:

      I would be cool with Mallett and Glassman, freeing up some cap space to pay Andre. Ridley wouldn’t help much with offsetting the dollars…

      • Kevan says:

        You don’t free up money with “glass man”, it’s guaranteed. Pats will pay Amendola more if they cut or trade him.

        • DMC413 says:

          I know we would loose money cutting him, don’t see how we would loose money via a trade. We would inherit AJ contract and we would offload # 80’s contract to Houston.

        • Kevan says:

          Your right my bad. To me the trade isn’t gonna happen though. Personally, I wouldn’t be willing to give Houston what I’m sure they would want. If Amendola can’t stay healthy this year Pats can get rid of him next year.

    • acm says:

      AJ will soon be 33yo so I doubt the Texans would be too hard to convince. Biggest issue imo is his contract, which the Pats will inherit in a potential trade. No way they can afford that under the current terms and it remains to be seen if he’d be willing to significantly lower his pay. It’s one thing to want to be on a winning team, completely different to let go of a mountain of money for it.

    • Nuf Ced says:

      Why would Houston be remotely interested in that package? Seriously they drafted Savage, Amondola is an overpay, are already paying Arian Foster and Mallet & Ridley will need new contracts

      This scenario is fantasy land

      • DMC413 says:


        Could be fantasy land or could be a reality depending on Houston’s position. Though their defense will be stellar this season… but to be realistic where are they going to go with no legit QB, yeah they have camp bodies right now but I don’t think they even know who their starter is gonna be come sept…. So the question is, are they looking to offload an aging WR who is often hurt and possibly no legit QB to throw to him this year and acquire a QB who has been in the league and learning from TB for the last few years hoping that a year in their system produces positive results toward a QB they can build around. No “Glassman” is not AJ but he still is in mid to late 20’s so he offers some longevity, and would help absorb the void AJ would leave; coupled with last yr’s first rounder WR Hopkins the tandem could complete the void completely. Scenario doesn’t sound so Fantasy land any more….

        • Bobthebuilder says:

          It is fantasy land because Amendola is injured far more often than Johnson and is nowhere near as good. And upon getting Mallet the Texans would still need a legit QB. Not to mention salary cap…

        • DMC413 says:

          I wasn’t really making a comparison between the two with the point of saying who’s better but more less some insight of looking at the situation as a whole and making a case for why a team would entertain such a trade….

          Ok have it your way, Texans keep AJ for however long, question who’s throwing him the ball??? In regards to salary cap yes the only way it would work is if AJ would take less money. Would I take less money, hell NO but I am your average middle class football loving dude, AJ is rich 33 future HOF going into a season with who as there starting QB?!?!?!?! Pats have a knack for aiding older players at a chance of at least going to the playoffs, from there its anybodies “Fantasy Land”.

  7. J H TARBORO says:

    Will Smith will be pushed in camp by potentially by 3 LBs, Josh Hull and UDFA Cameron Gordon who’s built the same as far as size and weight and LB Ja’Gared Davis.

    • DMC413 says:

      I think BB is looking for an experienced edge rusher on this one so I have to give the nod to Will Smith. Josh Hull will make the squad but more for LB depth reasons.

    • acm says:

      Will Smith is DE/DL at this point in his career. He has 40+ lbs on those guys you mentioned and is built similarly to DT Dom Easley, if anyone. If he sticks on the roster, it would be in the role of a nickel rusher (both on the edge and the interior), as the article suggest.

    • MaineMan says:

      Smith is 6026/282 (nearly 20 lbs heavier than Hightower who is pretty hefty for an LB) and has been a DE/DT through his entire career – except for last off-season when the Saints (who were switching to a 3-4 defense) experimented with trying to convert Smith to OLB before he tore his ACL. Smith will be exclusively used on the DL with the Pats, so won’t be “pushed” by the LBs you list, none of whom are even close to having DL heft:

      Hull is 6026/237 (and has become a special-teams specialist at this point in his 4-year career).
      Cam Gordon is 6021/231.
      Davis is 6000/238.

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