Ranking the Packers (No. 2): Za’Darius Smith
GREEN BAY, Wis. – In a tradition that stretches more than a decade, here is our annual ranking of the 90 players on the Green Bay Packers’ roster. This isn’t merely a look at the best players. Rather, it’s a formula that combines talent, salary, importance of the position, depth at the position and, for young players, draft positioning. More than the ranking, we hope you learn a little something about every player on the roster.
No. 2: OLB Za’Darius Smith (6-4, 272, sixth season, Kentucky)
It could be argued that more teams are destroyed than built in free agency. With teams wisely locking up their young, ascending players, the free-agent talent pool is typically shallow while the amount of salary-cap cash runs deep. Thus, every offseason, a lot of players whose former teams had no interest in retaining (such as Blake Martinez) or veterans who are past their prime (such as Jimmy Graham) are overpaid.
Smith seemed like a potential case in point last offseason. With Clay Matthews’ best days behind him and Nick Perry’s fragile body unable to produce, general manager Brian Gutekunst went shopping in free agency to rebuild his impotent outside linebacker corps. He courted Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and landed both. He handed out a king’s ransom, with a four-year, $66 million contract for Za’Darius Smith and a four-year, $52 million contract for Preston Smith.
Especially in the case of Za’Darius Smith, it was eye-popping money. That $16.5 million average salary matched Arizona’s Chandler Jones. In four seasons, Smith had a total of 18.5 sacks. Over that same span, Jones had at least 11 sacks in every season and averaged 13.4 sacks.
Gutekunst’s vision, pardon the pun, was right on the money. Smith had a monster season with 13.5 sacks. By the official league stats, he tied for the NFL lead with 37 quarterback hits. By ProFootballFocus.com’s count, he led the NFL with 93 quarterback pressures – the most by any edge defender since Khalil Mack had 96 for the Raiders in 2016. PFF’s pass-rushing productivity metric measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rushing snap. Of 117 edge defenders with at least 145 rushes, he ranked No. 1.
“I’m going to continue to do what I’m supposed to do,” said Smith, who had 10 pressures in his debut against Chicago and kept right on rolling. “When they brought me in here, they expected that. Because that was something the GM told me when I first got here, when I signed, like, ‘It’s not what you’ve done when you were in Baltimore but what you’re going to do for this organization.’”
Smith attacked from the left, right and middle. Offenses slid protection his way. None of it mattered. Smith had his way in almost every game.
“I know Chicago slid to (Smith) every snap,” defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery said of the Week 15 victory over the Bears, when defensive tackle Kenny Clark had two sacks. “That’s hard for a guy like Z. He’s getting two, maybe three, guys at him. Now, Kenny’s getting the legit one-on-ones and we don’t have to know where the slide’s going. We know. Z is a presence to be dealt with – he has been all year – and he makes people around him better. Like Kenny does in the run game, a lot of people double him in the run game. In the pass game, people are looking to double Z and they’re chipping Preston (Smith). That leaves somebody else free. They must think he’s not a good rusher so, hey, he’ll take whatever he can get.”
More than just a pass rusher, he tied Clark with team-high 11 stuffs (tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. the run). According to Sports Info Solutions, his average tackle was made 1.6 yards downfield. A huge personality and natural leader, he was mentioned countless times by quarterback Aaron Rodgers as a main reason for Green Bay’s revival.
“That was our guy when we evaluated the outside backers. He was the one that we were the most excited about,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said of the team’s free-agent search. “So, we knew the moment we signed him from a football standpoint that he was going to bring what we saw on tape. But it was at some point during the spring that you felt the presence in the room and the leadership and you were just around him and the work ethic and kind of the infectious confidence and the personality. We just didn’t realize that until we were around him. And I just think that’s been – both he and Preston – a big boost for the room. Not just from a playing standpoint, but all the things I talk about – the intangibles.”
Why he’s so important: Smith is the leader of the defense by word and by deed. As the season progressed, Pettine began to take more and more advantage of Smith’s varied skill-set. According to PFF, he played at least 23 snaps at 10 different positions. He was voted team captain in September and voted to the Pro Bowl in December.
“I think it was a really great pickup that they had in the offseason,” Redskins coach Bill Callahan said before the teams played in December. “He lines up just about anywhere and everywhere. So, he’s going to play the end positions right and left, he’s going to get over the guards, he’s played off the line of scrimmage. So, they’re using him in a lot of different capacities. It’s really impressive to watch his ability to rush from those various alignments that give him a uniqueness that I haven’t seen in a long time. Haven’t seen a rusher like him bring the combination of power, speed, length, close, and then get over the guards and show edge ability and quick hands and power, as well. It’s pretty rare to see a guy like him and his abilities to dominate at the different positions and levels that he’s been featured at.”
His cap charge was a modest $7.25 million in 2019 but will soar to $17.25 million in 2020 and $20.75 million in 2021 and 2022.