KENNER — Will Smith was supposed to be a goner, a certain cap casualty as the Saints looked to put last year’s nightmarish defensive collapse behind them and rebuild with new players and a new scheme.
Yet there he was Monday afternoon, talking about being a Saint for life as he played in the Saints Hall of Fame Celebrity Golf Classic at the Chateau Golf and Country Club. After agreeing to a sizable contract reduction in March — from $9 million in base salary to $3 million, according to ESPN — he is eager to begin life as an outside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s 3-4 scheme rather than his customary end spot in the 4-3 when the Saints begin organized team activities Tuesday.
“This is my home, so I want to stay here,” Smith said.
“My family’s here. My kids go to school here. This is the place I want to finish my playing days. I’ve always said that was important for me to do.”
New Orleans General Manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton revealed Smith’s position switch Monday. Outside linebackers in the 3-4 have similar responsibilities to ends in the 4-3, and ends in the 3-4 perform roles more similar to tackles in the 4-3.
“One of the challenges with the transition right now is trying to make sure we put the players that were on the roster a year ago in the right spots, but (outside linebacker) is where we will start him,” Payton said. “You know how much those guys rush. We can play him strong and weak and we can play him right and left, but initially that right outside position would be very similar to what he’s played for us in the past.”
Still, the new spot will require some adjustments for Smith, the longest tenured Saint. A first-round pick in 2004, he has played all nine years at end.
His career peaked in 2009, when he had a career-high 13 sacks in the regular season and the Saints won the Super Bowl. He has not come closer than halfway to that total since — he registered six sacks last year — and will turn 32 on July 4, fueling speculation that his days in New Orleans were over.
Still, his 58 tackles last season were his most since he had 61 in 2008. Although he has not lived up to the promise he showed in his earlier years, he remains a solid starter. The Saints wanted him back at a reduced price, and he was willing to take the risk even it meant learning a new position.
“It’s not that bad,” he said. “We’re doing the same things, but the difference is I’m just standing up (as an outside linebacker). I may have a couple of (pass) coverage responsibilities, but I’m still going to be rushing and playing the run.”
That matter-of-fact approach served Smith well last season, when he played through the distraction of an impending four-game suspension for his alleged role in the bounty scandal. While teammate Jonathan Vilma filed a defamation lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Smith stayed out of the fray and ended up starting all 16 games when former commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacated the suspensions in December.
Although he defended himself vigorously against the pay-to-injure charges, he kept his focus on the field.
“Will is a veteran player and one of the leaders in the locker room,” said left guard Ben Grubbs, who butted heads daily with Smith in practice. “Not only does he talk, but he walks it. He’s a good player. We look towards him for guidance. Even the veterans say, ‘Hey, I can do that better because I see him doing it.’ ”
Smith absolved Goodell of blame, saying the commissioner overreacted to false information but has a challenging job that requires “tough decisions and tough rulings at times.”
Smith’s decision to accept the pay cut was much easier. He wants to make amends for the Saints’ free fall without Payton, when they allowed the most yards in NFL history. He looks forward to working with Ryan, whose personality is markedly different from former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
“Rob Ryan is a fiery guy,” Smith said. “That’s something we need.”
Mainly, though, he has fallen in love with New Orleans and the Saints organization despite being from Utica, N.Y. The day he agreed to return, he tweeted, “Loyalty is Everything.”
“This is my home,” he said. “I’m not from Louisiana, but I’ll probably live here the rest of my life. I like the people here. I like the culture. I like everything about it. After football is all said and done, I’ll be here.”
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