The New Orleans Saints are in the midst of their organized training activities, which is just a fancy way of saying practice. One of the biggest developments in the early going has been the announcement that long-time defensive end Will Smith will be moving to outside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's 3-4 scheme.
That transition seems like an odd choice given that Smith has never shown the kind of burst that you expect of out 3-4 edge rushers like current NFL standouts J.J. Watt, Cameron Wake or DeMarcus Ware. Also, after nine years, there are serious questions about Smith's ability to accept new responsibilities against the run and the pass.
It seems like a desperation move for a defense that has to get younger, faster, more athletic and just plain better. It also seems like Saints head coach Sean Payton wants to give one of the most liked guys in the locker room every chance to make the roster, when they probably should have cut Smith loose after last season. If not then, they may have been able to get something - anything - for him at draft time.
Will Smith has been a productive player for the Saints. In his career, he has accumulated 67.5 sacks, good for fourth all-time in team history. Out of Saints players with at least 50 sacks, he is tied for fourth in sacks per game behind Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling and La'Roi Glover. In 2006, Smith was a Pro Bowl selection. Overall, he has been a good representative for the team on- and off-the-field. Plus, he accepted a significant pay cut to stay with the team this offseason. He wants to be here.
Still, Smith hasn't had a truly impactful season since 2009 when he racked up 13 sacks during the magical New Orleans run to the Super Bowl. In the 45 games since, he has only 18, or about 4/10ths of a sack per game. He also turns 32 before he begins his 10th NFL season. During that time, he has been paid to be a premier pass rusher when he really has just been an average one.
Ryan has already gushed about new addition Victor Butler, emerging 25 year-old who he coached in Dallas. The team has holdover Junior Gallette, also 25, who are expected by many to start at one of the outside positions. Martez Wilson should also see plenty of time there. These young players either are or are not the future of the position and it's about time to find out.
Maybe Smith is one of those rare players who can buck Father Time as well as conventional wisdom and make the transition. Maybe he has one more really good season in him. But as the Saints defense moves on with a new coach and a new scheme, they really should start moving on with players that represent the future and not the past.
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