The Green Bay Packers paid big money to land outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith in free agency.
Thus far, they’re getting their money’s worth.
Through four games, Preston Smith has 4.5 sacks and Za’Darius Smith has 3.0 sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Za’Darius Smith ranks seventh among all edge rushers with 23 total pressures while Preston Smith is 11th with 19.
It’s not just the production where the Packers are getting return on investment. After years of the injury-plagued duo of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the Smiths have gotten on the field and stayed on the field. Preston Smith ranks 10th among edge rushers with 242 snaps. Ankle and knee injuries have limited Za’Darius Smith to “only” 227 snaps, which ranks 18th. Preston Smith has played 89.3 percent of the defensive snaps and Za’Darius Smith has played 83.8 percent. For comparison’s sake, Matthews led the outside linebacker group with 71.1 percent playing time in 2018 and 62.4 percent in 2017; Nick Perry led the way with 58.6 percent in 2016.
Is that too much to sustain over the course of a 16-game – or longer – season?
“No. No,” Za’Darius Smith said with a lot of smile on Thursday. “I feel like we’re young. We’ve still got a lot of juice.”
“A lot of it,” interjected Preston Smith as the Smiths did their usual joint interview.
“A lot of juice,” continued Za’Darius Smith. “To able to go out there and play that amount of plays, it’s good for the both of us. But we’ve got a lot of young guys behind us and we’re going to keep striving and keep doing our best at being leaders and being a great outside linebacker group.”
Those young guys haven’t played much. Kyler Fackrell has been practically an afterthought after his breakout season of 10.5 sacks. He’s played 80 snaps, or 29.5 percent. First-round pick Rashan Gary, who was excellent against Denver in Week 3 but quiet otherwise, has played 64 snaps, or 23.6 percent. The Packers added to that group by claiming Tim Williams off waivers from Baltimore; he played 75 snaps in four games for the Ravens.
Even on a short week, the Smiths played a lot last week against the Eagles. Preston Smith played 52 snaps (84 percent) and Za’Darius Smith played 47 snaps (76 percent), despite a knee injury that he said almost put him on the inactives list.
“I can tell you this, man: Coach always says, ‘Z, you need to come out for a play.’ I’m not coming out, man. I can tell you that,” Za’Darius Smith said. “I’m a guy who, if it’s not broken, I’m going to still go. If I’ve got an opportunity to go out there and help my teammates succeed, I’m going to do that each and every time.”
More of Fackrell and Gary, and the potential development of Williams, would take some of the burden off the Smiths. Preston Smith, however, had a more practical solution.
“If we play well, we’ll get off the field,” he said. “We plan on getting better and not playing as many snaps and having a lot more success on defense so we won’t have to play as many snaps to get the ball back to our offense. They do their thing and we ease up on ourselves.”