FOXBOROUGH — Veteran defensive end Will Smith did not have to return to football. After tearing his ACL in a 2013 preseason game against the Houston Texans, Smith could have called it a career.
At nearly 33 years old and coming off knee surgery, it wouldn’t have been a complete surprise if Smith struggled to find work. Sometimes, these decisions on retirement are not left up to the player, but instead are made by the 32 other teams.
There was no shortage of requests for Smith’s services, though, and his passion for the game urged him to return for an 11th season by signing with the New England Patriots.
“There was other teams but this was the place I thought I felt best with,” Smith said after the Patriots’ second practice of mandatory minicamp on Wednesday. “I was familiar with a lot of the coaches and I know most of the players. I thought I would be able to be productive in this team.
“There’s a lot of places that I liked, but I thought this was a good fit for me.”
After spending so much time in the NFL, Smith’s life has come to revolve around football. His passion for the game was one of the driving factors in him making the difficult return from ACL surgery, but his passion from the game isn’t selfish.
“Well, just my love for the game,” he said. “Something that I love doing. I love going out and competing. Love playing on Sunday. I play for myself as well as my family and my teammates. It’s something that everyone wanted me to go back and do and I wanted to do and I’m excited about doing.”
Smith registered 67.5 sacks in his 10 years with the Saints, the fourth-most sacks by any player in franchise history. After spending so much time in one place, one might assume his transition would be difficult. Smith doesn’t agree.
“No, it’s not tough,” he said. “It’s just something different. You know, life has a lot of different challenges and you just have to be able to take them as they come along and adjust. It’s something that I’m looking forward to. I’m originally from New York, I’m an east coast guy, so it feels good to be back on the east coast.”
Most of his playing time has been limited to the right side of the defensive line, but he has been spotted moving around the line during the Patriots’ offseason workout program.
He bounced back and forth between left and right end in his final years with the Saints, and while he feels more comfortable on the right, he says the adjustment isn’t too difficult.
“Other than it being the left side it really isn’t that much different,” he said. “You still gotta play the run stops different, you still gotta pass rush the same way. Just different sides. It’s just something certain guys aren’t comfortable with. I’m comfortable with it.”
Smith’s ability to adjust will likely be tested. Defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich spent far too much time on the field in 2013, with Jones playing 1,142 snaps in the regular season and Ninkovich playing 1,115 snaps.
Which position Smith plays will likely hinge upon which position he is needed on any given down.
With more depth in the rotation this year, though, Smith thinks there is a lot of potential in this group.
“I think we’ll be awesome,” he said. “I think everyone in the National Football League is talented. We just have to go out and execute and play at a high level. I think it’ll be good.”
If injured veterans like Smith, Vince Wilfork, and Tommy Kelly can make successful returns from injury, Smith’s prophecy could come true.