FOXBOROUGH — Will Smith easily could have called it quits this offseason.
He’ll soon be 33, coming off a torn ACL, with 10 NFL seasons on his résumé. Smith already has a Super Bowl ring, and more than enough money in the bank after signing a $70 million contract with the Saints in 2008.
Who could blame Smith if he called it quits, especially after he sat unsigned for three months after the Saints made him a salary cap casualty in February? Lord knows he doesn’t have to be sweating it out on a hot June day at Gillette Stadium with his new Patriots teammates, slowly working his way back from his injury.
But retirement can wait for Smith. When the Patriots called in May, he jumped at the chance to compete for another Super Bowl ring.
“Just my love for the game,” Smith said after Wednesday’s practice. “Love going out and competing. Love playing on Sunday.
“As long as I still have the drive and ambition and still want to go out and compete each day and win, as long as I want to win, I’m going to be out there playing.”
Obviously, the NFL paycheck is higher than Smith would receive in most industries, so it’s easy to see why he would want to cling onto his career for as long as possible. And Smith, who won Super Bowl XLIV following the 2009 season with the Saints, can try to add another ring to his collection.
But Smith, who spent his entire career in New Orleans, isn’t exactly getting rich off the Patriots, either.
The Smith signing was classic Patriots — good value in an aging but once-productive player. And with absolutely zero risk for the team, of course.
Smith, who has 67.5 career sacks and made the Pro Bowl in 2006, received a veteran minimum salary of $855,000. If he makes the roster, he’ll get an extra $50,000.
If his knee doesn’t hold up, he won’t cost the Patriots anything more than the $15,000 workout bonus they’ll pay him this spring. Smith counts for the minimum salary benefit, leaving his salary cap number at $585,000 — the 40th highest number on the team, in between Nate Ebner and Alfonzo Dennard.
That pales to what he was scheduled to make for the Saints this year before they cut him in February — a salary of $11.55 million and a cap number of $13.9 million. But the Saints had major cap issues this offseason, and purged several veterans from the ledger, including Roman Harper and Jabari Greer.
Smith, though, was well worth the (no) risk for the Patriots. They did finish fifth in the NFL with 48 sacks last year, but anyone who watched the AFC Championship game, when the Patriots didn’t so much as lay a finger on Peyton Manning, knows New England had trouble getting consistent pressure. Smith started 107 games between 2006-12 — at least 14 games in each season — so he was a durable, productive player before tearing his ACL last year in the third exhibition game.
Outside of Chandler Jones (11.5 sacks) and Rob Ninkovich (8), the Patriots didn’t have a solid No. 3 pass rusher. They played 98 and 96 percent of snaps during the season, respectively, and wore down at the end of the season. Andre Carter was signed off the street, but he provided just two sacks in nine games and barely had anything left in the tank. The Patriots have several young defensive ends to compete with Smith — Michael Buchanan, Jake Bequette, first-round pick Dominique Easley, and sixth-round pick Zach Moore. But if Smith shows enough burst in camp, he could easily slide into the “Andre Carter” role and give the Patriots a decent third option behind Jones and Ninkovich.
Smith also has good positional versatility, having played 4-3 defensive end, 3-4 defensive end, and 3-4 outside linebacker. He mostly lined up on the right side, but said he’s willing to play on the left, and has been doing some during offseason practices. Jones is the right defensive end in the base defense, but can move inside on passing downs.
“My preference is to play on the right, but if I’m needed on the left I’m able to go play both sides,” Smith said. “My main goal now is just to go out, get back in football shape, make sure I know the playbook in and out.”
And how is his knee feeling, 10 months after tearing his ACL?
“Obviously I’m feeling pretty good. I had a full day of practice,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me. I’m ready to go.”
Smith said he’s excited to join an “awesome” defensive line that also includes Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. It’s funny that he now gets to play alongside Wilfork and Kelly. All three were part of the same draft class — Smith went 18th overall in 2004 to the Saints (Bill Belichick really wanted him), Wilfork went 21st to the Patriots, and Kelly went undrafted and signed with the Raiders. Smith (Ohio State) and Wilfork (Miami) faced each other in the 2002 BCS national championship game.
Not only are the veterans old friends and teammates, but they are each rehabbing injuries this summer — Wilfork is coming back from a torn Achilles’ and Kelly from a torn ACL.
“It’s good to see Vince out there busting his butt, Tommy out there busting his butt trying to get back, and we all kinda encourage each other,” Smith said. “We’re excited to be playing with each other now.”
Smith is just hoping to make it last as long as he can.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin