<
>

Free safety Smith signs three-year deal with Vikings

Standout free safety Dwight Smith, released by the
New Orleans Saints last Thursday, on Tuesday reached agreement with the Minnesota Vikings on a three-year, $6.5 million contract.

The deal with Smith, who visited with Minnesota officials and coaches on Monday and Tuesday, reunites the five-year veteran with Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, who was his secondary coach for four seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It also provides the Vikings with one of the NFL's premier safety tandems, as Smith will join Pro Bowl performer Darren Sharper in the middle of the secondary.

"This is a great opportunity for a fresh start," Smith told The Associated Press.
"I get to play with my old coach again. There are a bunch of great
veterans already in the room. Hopefully I can be an addition that
can help somewhere and I'm going to fit where needed."

Tampa Bay, the team with which Smith began his career in 2001, was the other club that most ardently pursued him.

Smith did not receive a conventional signing bonus as part of the contract, but the Vikings will pay him the $1.2 million he was scheduled to earn with the Saints before his release. He will receive a $615,000 roster bonus and a base salary of $585,000.

In 2007, Smith will receive a $100,000 workout bonus, a $500,000 roster bonus payable in the spring, and a base salary of $1.6 million. For 2008, the bonuses are the same as in 2007, but Smith's base salary for the final year of the deal jumps to $2.5 million. Essentially, the deal means that Smith is under contract for one fewer season than he has been with the Saints.

The nine-year veteran Sharper, who registered nine interceptions in '05, seems prepared to make whatever accommodations are necessary, likely moving to strong safety, to fit Smith into the lineup. And with Tomlin on hand, and his familiarity with Smith's strengths, the Vikings should be able to conjure up some coverage schemes that take advantage of everyone's skills.

Adding the resourceful Smith to the lineup gives Minnesota a pair of ballhawking safeties in the "cover two" scheme that Tomlin installed in the offseason, and further bolsters a secondary that includes standout cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Fred Smoot.

Minnesota signed former Tennessee starting strong safety
Tank Williams as an unrestricted free agent and he and four-year veteran Willie Offord seemed ready to compete for the starting job there. But acquiring Smith, of course, will change that.

Agent Drew Rosenhaus had spoken to several teams about Smith since his release, but the front-runners for his services from the outset were Minnesota and Tampa Bay. Smith still has several friends on the Bucs' roster and he knows the defense and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin very well.

Rosenhaus said Monday morning that, while a deal was not imminent at the time, all of the teams that seemed serious in pursuing his client would be in camp by the end of the week, and Smith's goal was to be in camp on time with his new club.

A former Akron standout, and the third-round pick of the Bucs in the 2001 draft, Smith is the kind of safety many teams want to have now, an interior defender with cornerback-level coverage skills. In fact, Smith started his career with the Bucs as a standout nickel cornerback and then was moved to safety 2003.

Smith, 27, provides a defense with tremendous flexibility because of his hybrid skills and his ability to move out into the slot and cover wide receivers.

As arguably the Saints' most notable veteran addition in 2005, Smith signed a five-year, $15 million contract as an unrestricted free agent, and the deal included a $3.5 million signing bonus. In his only season with the Saints, Smith appeared in 15 games, all starts, and had 86 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, seven passes defensed and two forced fumbles.

While he was arguably New Orleans' steadiest defender in 2005, Smith did not fit into the plans of a new coaching staff that has overhauled the safety position. After dangling him in trade talks for much of the offseason, the Saints decided to cut ties with Smith after no team would meet their asking price.

For his career, Smith has appeared in 78 games and started 49 of them. He has 306 tackles, one sack, 14 interceptions, 45 passes defensed, seven forced fumbles and two recoveries. In Tampa Bay's victory over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, Smith returned two interceptions for touchdowns.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.