Smith looks like wise investment

The free agent has starting experience, knows the scheme and is a solid insurance policy at safety, where Nick Collins wants a new contract and Collins and Atari Bigby are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents next season. Our Tyler Dunne has the story.

It's oh-so easy to get caught up in free agency fever. Right now, hockey and hoops fans are refreshing and refreshing their browsers with reckless abandon.

For what? An overly tattooed Chris "Birdman" Andersen? Please.

Reality rarely matches hype. Even this week's big winners, the Detroit Pistons, aren't exactly lighting up cigars for their $100 million purchase. After taking and trashing Allen Iverson's expiring contract in the Chauncey Billups trade, all they got was a streaky sixth man (Ben Gordon) and a Twitteraholic (Charlie Villanueva).

So maybe the mudslinging at Ted Thompson should cease. Green Bay's general manager wasn't crazy for sleeping in during March. Let the have-nots duke it out over Igor Olshansky and Michael Boley. Rookies B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews have more upside, anyway.

Instead of joining the auction, Thompson waited and waited and waited and, then, made one under-the-radar signing that looks better every day. At the Dollar General discount of $1.485 million over two years, Anthony Smith is a steal. And with Nick Collins clamoring for more money, it's a major peace of mind to have somebody familiar with the 3-4 scheme.

In Dom Capers' defense, the free safety must make all the calls in the deep center. Considering the entire defense is new to this scheme, Capers must boast a heady point guard back there. One botched call can cost a game. Smith himself admitted that it'll take guys "a couple years to really know the in's and out's of the defense." Having played in the Pittsburgh Steelers' 3-4 for three years, Smith is a few chapters ahead of his peers.

Don't be surprised if Thompson plays hardball with Collins, knowing that Smith can fill in.

"Anthony looks very comfortable," coach Mike McCarthy said. "Definitely his experience in Pittsburgh has really helped him. He understands conceptually there are probably some things that we ask him to do differently just as far as communication."

Smith can't explain why he faded from starter to scout team so abruptly in Pittsburgh. In 2007 — aside from one, overplayed guarantee against undefeated New England — Smith was solid. As the Steelers' starting free safety, he had 69 tackles and two interceptions. Last year, however, he was inactive throughout Pittsburgh's playoff run.

"I was real frustrated," Smith said. "You don't want to be wasted talent on the sideline. To start the year before and then not play at all last year was really frustrating."

It appears to be a classic, Schroeder-esque case of getting shoved into the doghouse. After a couple weeks in the classifieds, Smith found the best possible new owner. Smith came to Green Bay to start, not diddle-daddle on special teams.

Collins and Atari Bigby are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents after this season — and both could be in line for multimillion deals. If Smith takes advantage of Collins' current contract squabble and snags the starting spot, maybe he is a long-term answer. Aaron Rouse, while built like T-Rex, isn't fluid in open space. Pound-for-pound, Charlie Peprah may be the defense's best hitter but he has limited playmaking ability at best. Smith possesses the perfect balance of experience, hands and hitting.

McCarthy is quick to note that every 3-4 defense is different. Still, Smith's body of work clearly puts him ahead of the curve.

"He was the furthest ahead of anybody when we started this process," McCarthy said. "He looks very natural out there. He's an athletic safety. I can see why people were as high on him as they are, and I think he'll definitely factor in our safety group."

The free safety isn't strictly responsible for dropping into the right zones. Green Bay's version of Ed Reed must navigate the defense as a whole. Whoever is playing free safety must push all the right buttons before every snap. In sync, the 3-4 can wreak havoc, regardless of the personnel. Because, well, the Miami Dolphins skyrocketed from 1-15 to 11-5 by running a scheme with many of Capers' fingerprints from his two-year stay in South Florida.

Smith knows this. With Collins and Bigby sidelined for various reasons through minicamp, Smith earned the valuable reps.

"The free safety has to be the quarterback," he said. "He's the one that makes the defense go."

Ideally, Collins wises up, reports to camp and applies his tenacious ballhawking to the Packers' 3-4. While Aaron Kampman was lukewarm to the switch, Collins should have been popping champagne. Not biting his lip and telling reporters, "We'll see" as to whether he'll report to training camp. Safeties in 3-4 defenses are celebrities in the NFL. With another banner season, Collins would be guaranteed a lucrative contract somewhere. He needs to stop pouting.

For now, though, it appears the Packers signed a watershed for this scenario. Thompson watched teams overpay on C-plus talents, signed Smith and eventually drafted tailor-made 3-4 talents in Raji and Matthews.

The former Steeler could enjoy a rebirth in Titletown. He said one reason he came to Green Bay is that it's the only team that has a better tradition then Pittsburgh. The other reason? Opportunity. If Collins holds out, Smith can step in.

"I'm helping a lot of guys out," Smith said. "Helping them understand and learn the defense. I think I can be a great piece to the puzzle … Knowing the defense is a big advantage."


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Tyler Dunne writes for Packer Report. E-mail him at tydunne07@yahoo.com.


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