by Kristian Garic, Kristian@wwl.com,posted Feb 14 2012 10:04AM
Clearly the Saints defensive line was a bit of a disappointment in 2011, but is a problem with coaching or the talent? We'll find out soon with new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo now calling the shots. Spag's has developed a reputation of being a defensive line expert. The team's best defensive lineman, Will Smith, had just 35 tackles and 6.5 sacks last season. What's more? He is scheduled to make 10.2 million dollars in 2012. NFL teams keep a watchful eye on production vs. money. Smith signed a 6 year, $70 million contract back in 2008. His best season came in 2009 with 13.5 sacks, helping the Saints win the Super Bowl. Smith is a team captain and one of the leaders of the team since arriving in 2004 as the club's first round draft pick.
With so many young players on the offensive side of the football that could become free agents this offseason, the Saints might ask Smith to restructure his contract. The team has a number of big dollar deals to work out and have to keep any eye on the salary cap. New Orleans is trying to work out a long term deal with quarterback Drew Brees, and the Saints have guard Carl Nicks and receiver Marques Colston with expiring contracts.
Is Smith's production worth the pay? It's hard to justify $10.2 million for a 30 year old aging veteran defensive lineman. However, it's not guaranteed they'll have much luck finding a better replacement in the draft or free agency. "That's the problem, do you want to take that chance and release Smith and not get an upgrade?" WWL's Bobby Hebert asked.
Smith has been selected to the Pro Bowl 1 time in his career and is an above average defensive end in the NFL, but not an elite pass rusher. "Those are hard to find, they just don't come around all that much. So, it's unrealistic to think you can just cut him and find that dynamic pass rusher on the open market," said Saints color analyst Hokie Gajan.
What are the options? Do the Saints ask Smith to take a pay cut? Will he even consider taking a pay cut? Do the Saints cast their lot with last years 7th round draft pick Gregg Romeus? He basically "redshirted" 2011 recovering from a knee injury. You can't turn it over to Junior Galette, he's more of a rush specialist not particularly strong against the run. Smith has only tallied double digit sack totals twice in his eight seasons in the league. He started the 2011 season serving a two game suspension for a banned substance positive test. All in all, I think it's a 50/50 chance that Smith is back in 2012. Does he want to accept the pay cut he will likely be asked to take? If he does, I could see the Saints brining him back, but his production is not worth the 10.2 million dollars in cap space he's going to count for.
It's a harsh reality for NFL veterans, at some point the team will start looking at your production and matching it up with your pay. The fact is, Smith is not the game changing impact player at defensive end that the Saints desperately need.