Now, the 33-year-old defensive end has a job to win.
"It feels good," Smith said Saturday, after the first training camp day in full pads. "It's been awhile, so I'm excited to just be out there, running around, with shoulder pads, going through regular drills - so it feels real good.
"It's something I hadn't done for a long time, almost a year; playing football in full gear, going out there hitting people and tackling and stuff like that. It feels good to be back at it."
Smith, who can also line up at linebacker, which is what he was being asked to do by New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan before getting hurt last year. He suffered a torn left ACL in a preseason game last August.
When the season ended, his 10-year stay with the Saints came to an end - after he had taken a pay cut to play last season.
Enter the Patriots, a team looking for pass rushing depth that was willing to take a minimal gamble on a guy who has 67 1/2 sacks during his career - including 13 in 2009.
Last season, the Patriots were fifth in the NFL with 48 sacks, but
Smith, who signed for the league minimum of $855,000 and will receive a $50,000 bonus if he makes the team, should be able to provide depth for the rushers.
"I'm just excited to be here - excited to have the opportunity to come out and still play football, the game I love, do whatever I can do to help the team win," Smith said.
One upside with having a veteran missing an entire season to rehab is that the other bumps and bruises from playing get a chance to heal.
"My body definitely feels great," Smith said. "I've just been working out for the past year, just trying to get back to this point - so I could be able to go out and play football. I don't have the traditional aches and pains that most of the guys have from playing the last two years, or three years, or whatever, consistently."
Asked if he pays any attention to what's going on with the Saints, Smith said, "My focus right now is the New England Patriots - that's what I'm focused on.
"This is a talented group, but that really doesn't mean anything. We still have to go out and execute and win games. Camp right now is for everyone to come together and work out those kinks and become a good team. This is really just the start of it."
And Smith knows there's work to do.
"I think you always have to prove yourself, each year. It never stops," he said. "Next year, if I'm lucky enough to be playing, I'm still going to have to prove myself again, and continue and continue and continue."