After a decade-long career with the New Orleans Saints and a longer wait than he likely ever expected, free-agent defensive end Will Smith has a new home.
ESPN's Mike Reiss reported Smith and the New England Patriots have agreed to a contract, though terms at this time are undisclosed:
Filed to ESPN with @FieldYates: Patriots are signing veteran DE Will Smith, formerly of the Saints, per source.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) May 5, 2014
The Patriots later confirmed the deal on their Twitter account:
Smith, 32, visited the Patriots in April but left without a contract. New England has been viewed as the prohibitive favorite to sign the former Pro Bowler ever since. A key member of the Saints' Super Bowl XLIV roster, Smith received his outright release from the team in February. He was cut alongside fellow veterans Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer for salary-cap purposes.
Although a stalwart in New Orleans' front four throughout his career, Smith has shown signs of age in recent years. He hasn't recorded more than 6.5 sacks in a season since 2009 and sat out all of last season after suffering a torn ACL in New Orleans' third preseason game.
The Saints had planned on switching Smith to outside linebacker as part of their move to a 3-4 defense, so it will be interesting to see what Bill Belichick has planned for the veteran. New England's base defense has moved more toward a 4-3 in recent years, but is more of a hybrid overall, with Belichick switching his scheme based on the situation.
Smith should mostly, if not entirely, be part of the defensive line rotation. New England had a need on Smith's traditional right end spot behind Chandler Jones. Bringing a veteran like Smith into the fold should only help Belichick develop Jones, a 24-year-old star in the making who had 11.5 sacks in his second NFL season.
Whether Smith has anything left in the tank to consistently contribute on the field is another question. ACL tears in 30-something defensive linemen are not injuries that can easily be chalked up as inconsequential.
The Patriots will want to see Smith drive off the snap, use his legs as power leverage to push piles and how much (if any) of his quickness has been sapped away. Injury concerns played a large part in Smith being on the market almost three full months—including a month between his visit to Foxborough and Monday's signing. It's likely both sides wanted to check in on Smith's knee and see how far along he is in his progression.
"I feel young. My body feels young. This is the only injury I've ever had in my career," Smith told Camille Whitworth of WDSU in December. "My goal is to go out there and play more years and see what happens from there."
With less than a week before the draft, Belichick and Co. probably wanted to get this out of the way before Thursday so they could finalize mapping their strategy. Signing Smith is not a long-term solution, but one that could allow New England to wait an extra round or two before jumping for additional defensive line depth.
I absolutely love the Patriots' offseason.— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) May 5, 2014
At the very least, Smith falls in the long line of veterans who have come to Belichick hoping for a late-career renaissance. Guys like Rodney Harrison, the late Junior Seau and numerous others have found success in New England well after their peak.
There is no guarantee Smith will join those Hall of Fame names, but with a low-risk, low-cost contract, there isn't much to lose here for the Patriots.
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