In a move that addresses one of their biggest defensive deficiencies, and which could precipitate a shakeup in their porous secondary, the New Orleans Saints on Monday reached a contract agreement with unrestricted free agent free safety Dwight Smith.
Smith, 26, was regarded by most teams as one of the top two safeties in the unrestricted pool. Although the former Tampa Bay starter said late in the 2004 season that he would like to return to cornerback, the position he played the first two years of his career, the Saints will definitely use Smith at safety.
The addition of Smith could result in the release of Tebucky Jones, a seven-year veteran New Orleans acquired from New England in a 2003 trade, but who Saints coaches and team officials feel has not made enough game-altering plays to warrant his big contract.
A four-year veteran, Smith will sign a five-year contract worth slightly more than $15 million and which includes a $3.5 million signing bonus.
New Orleans will pair Smith with strong safety Jay Bellamy, who bypassed the free agent market to sign a three-year extension two weeks ago, and who is a steady and consistent defender. The hope is that Smith, a natural ballhawk with excellent range and instincts, will author game-altering plays in a secondary that has been a problem area for the Saints for the past several seasons.
The Saints statistically ranked 27th in the league against the pass in 2004 and shoring up the secondary is an offseason priority. New Orleans will likely address the cornerback position as well, likely in the draft. Another plus is that corner Mike McKenzie, who was acquired in an '04 trade with Green Bay in October, will have the benefit of being in camp with the Saints this summer.
"We believe Dwight is a top free-agent safety and will come
here to play free safety," coach Jim Haslett said. "His
experience at cornerback and safety shows his versatility, and he
is a solid, hard-hitting presence with the ball-hawking skills we
are looking for in the secondary. This signing improves our entire
defense and our speed on the backside of the unit."
A third-round pick in the 2001 draft, Smith began his career as the Bucs' top nickel cornerback before moving to free safety in 2003. Over the last two seasons, Smith has started all 32 games at free safety, although injures frequently forced him to move up to the nickel cornerback role on third down.
It was in his nickel role that Smith intercepted two passes in the Bucs' victory over Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVIII, returning both for touchdowns.
At free safety, he posted 150 tackles, eight interceptions and 23 passes defensed in two seasons. For his career, Smith has 181 tackles, 12 interceptions, 34 passes defensed and five forced fumbles, while appearing in 63 games and starting in 34 of them.
The acquisition of Smith does not come without some off-field risk for the Saints. Smith was arrested last week and charged with pulling what turned out to be a BB-gun on two motorists as they sat in the drive-though line at fast-food restaurant. In 2002, he was charged with threatening a motorist in Clearwater with a handgun and he later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of improperly displaying a firearm.
Through his attorney, Smith has denied the latest charges, and an investigation of the incident is ongoing. If Smith is found guilty, or even pleads guilty an any reduced charge, he could be subject to NFL discipline.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.