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NEW ORLEANS -- The Saints began their transition to a 3-4 defense on Monday with the biggest change being defensive captain Will Smith working at outside linebacker, rather than the defensive end spot at which he has played his whole career.
"That's where we'll start him," coach Sean Payton said, noting that outside linebackers often play pass-rushing roles in a 3-4 scheme. "We can play him right and left, but I think initially that right outside position would be very similar to what he's played for us in the past."
Payton said he envisions veteran Jonathan Vilma as one of the two middle linebackers in the new scheme.
Payton's suspension ended in January, shortly after the regular season concluded with the Saints finishing 7-9 and out of the playoffs for the first time in four years. Upon his return, Payton quickly made changes to a defense that gave up an NFL worst-ever 7,042 yards last season, bringing in Rob Ryan as his new coordinator, which also meant changing alignments from a 4-3 [four lineman, three linebackers] to a 3-4.
"There's just got to be some flexibility when it comes to the transition," Payton said. "There'll be a few players that will learn more than one spot."
Smith said he'll have to get used to starting plays in an upright stance, whereas before he crouched down with a hand on the turf. But beyond that, he said learning the new position is "not that bad."
"I may have a couple [pass] coverage responsibilities, but for the most part I'm just rushing (the passer) and playing the run," Smith said.
For Smith, the bigger difference -- and a welcome one -- is heading into a season without any bounty accusations or possible suspensions hanging over his head, and having Payton back at team headquarters.
In 2012, Smith initially was issued a four-game suspension, and Vilma a full-season ban, for what the NFL said were their roles as leaders in a bounty program that rewarded big plays -- including big and sometimes injury-causing hits -- with improper cash bonuses. However, player suspensions were never served and ultimately thrown out on appeal.
"It's definitely a different year," Smith said. "Sean coming back brings a whole different element to the team. ... Nothing's been the same since he's been back. I think that's perfect for the group to move on, putting everything behind us and start a whole completely new year."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.