From renegotiating his contract to losing weight and trying out a new role, Will Smith has made it clear to the New Orleans Saints that he's willing to be flexible in order to spend his 10th NFL season with his only pro club.
Still, Smith has to prove this preseason that he can be effective in his switch from a traditional defensive end to an outside linebacker in the Saints' new 3-4 defensive alignment under new coordinator Rob Ryan.
"It really hasn't been that hard of a transition," Smith said, adding that one of the biggest adjustments was simply a switch in position coaches from Bill Johnson, who handles linemen, to assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who oversees linebackers. "Overall, I would look at the position as just an extension from defensive end. ... Most of the time, I'm doing the same thing I've always done."
Indeed, his primary role is expected to entail pressuring the quarterback, something he's done well throughout his career.
Yet there are some new responsibilities. In a 3-4 scheme (three linemen, four linebackers) the outside linebackers are sometimes required to cover short passes to running backs and tight ends in the flat when the defense is playing a zone.
That is something Smith has not done much, and a main reason coaches asked him to shed about 10 pounds during the offseason.
"I'm looking, a little — a lot — sleeker. ... Losing the weight helped me a lot," said Smith, who estimates his current weight at 268 pounds. "I have to handle coverages, I have to do linebacker drills, I do a little of special teams, so I do a lot of different things than what I was doing the previous nine years."
Smith also is training on both the left and right sides of the field, whereas before he played only right defensive end in a 4-3 alignment.
"They have me all over the place. Anything I can do to help the team," Smith said. "I am just learning and enjoying it. The defensive scheme is very fun."
So far, both Ryan and coach Sean Payton are complimenting Smith's performance.
"He's been a natural end and now he's playing linebacker, so there's going to be some uncomfortable times," Ryan said. "But I think he's comfortable with it now. I think he's used to it already. ... He's going to be outstanding out there.
"I know he can do it," Ryan added. "He's had that reputation before I ever got here as a tough, hardworking guy and a team player, and that's what he's showing here."
Smith grew up Utica, N.Y., then starred at Ohio state before the Saints selected him in the first round, 18th overall, in the 2004 draft. His combination of power and quickness made him an elite pass-rushing end. He registered 10 1/2 sacks in 2006 and a career-high 13 sacks in 2009, the season the Saints won their only Super Bowl title.
Smith was entering his third season when Payton took over, and the loyalty between them seems to have grown over the years, including through last season, when Payton was suspended the entire season in the NFL's bounty investigation, which also implicated Smith as a ring-leader in the cash-for-hits program. Smith stuck up for his coach, disputing the NFL's findings, and successfully appealed his own four-game suspension.
He then took a pay cut from $9 million to $3 million in base salary for this season, providing the club with crucial salary cap relief.
Smith said shortly after the renegotiation that he now considers Louisiana — his wife's native state — as home and expects to remain in the are long after his playing days end. He also hopes to close out his career with New Orleans.
"He's been a very consistent performer and he's been here the longest," Payton said. "People say that it's a young man's game, but if a guy can still do the assignment and be productive (careers can last), and in Will's case, he's taken care of himself. He understands how challenging it is to play year in and year out, especially the position he's playing."
Ryan said Smith's value to the club goes beyond his talent to his presence in the locker room.
"What a leader," Ryan said. "He's a veteran but I think he knows that means you've got work even more. ... He looks like he's got young legs out here. He's flying around."
NOTES: Reserve QB Seneca Wallace sat out practice with a groin pull. ... Reserve WR Jarred Fayson, a second-year pro out of Illinois, practiced for the first time this training camp after being listed out because of dehydration since last Friday. ... Reserve QB Ryan Griffin, a rookie out of Tulane, saw more work because of Wallace's absence and shined during 11-on-11 drills. He completed his first six throws, three of them over the top for what would been touchdowns to WRs Chris Givens, Saalim Hakim and Preston Parker. "A lot of the guys lined up right and did a good job with the assignments, so it's not just me, it was everyone." However, during a scramble later in practice, he was intercepted by S Akwasi Owusu-Ansah. ... Payton said Thursday's practice would be moved indoors and will be closed to the public. Friday's practice also is closed, then Saturday's scrimmage at club headquarters will be open and free to the public.