GREEN BAY – Za’Darius Smith was all smiles Thursday in his 12-and-a-half-minute introduction to Green Bay, but a wide one — a knowing one — spread across his face when it was pointed out that his $16.5 million annual salary is one of the top at his position in the National Football League.
Za’Darius Smith’s $66 million contract was the grand finale of a spending spree by Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst at the start of free agency, as the organization handed out $182 million (excluding incentives and escalators) to Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner.
And with that comes the spotlight, and expectation.
“All that really hasn’t sunk in yet, but I’m going to do my best,” Za’Darius Smith said through that smile. “I’m going to do what I can do. Coaches know what I’m capable of doing, so I’m going to continue to work hard. Like I said, stay after practice, do the little things right. What I’m bringing to this team is leadership, accountability. I’m going to do the right thing and I’m going to continue to put up numbers hopefully.”
Unofficially, the salary tracking website www.spotrac.com has the former Baltimore Ravens linebacker as the fourth-highest paid outside linebacker in the league. Preston Smith, at $13 million annually, comes in at ninth.
Amos is the eighth-highest paid free safety. Turner, who plays both guard and tackle, would rank 19th among guards should he play there (all carry much lower 2019 salary-cap numbers).
On the team, Smith is second only to Aaron Rodgers in average annual value. Preston Smith is fourth, Amos is eighth and Turner is 10th.
“I mean, really, I just go out there and be the best I can be,” Preston Smith said of any expectation that comes with the checks. “I put pressure on myself, I have high expectations of myself. You don’t worry about the money part, that’s why I hire an agent to handle stuff like that. I just try to be the best I can be and be the best linebacker I can be for the Packers.”
Amos wants to grow into leadership role
Things are changing inside Lambeau Field, whether it be new paint, new signage or new clocks. The locker room is empty, save for some players who come by for a workout. Nameplates from the 2018 season still adorn the top of most lockers.
Yet when it comes to the back end of the secondary, the only traditional safeties under contract who saw defensive snaps last year are Josh Jones (501) and Raven Greene (43). Corner Tramon Williams filled in for the final two months of the season, but the Packers had to cycle through a variety of options.
So not only does Adrian Amos come in as one of the league’s top 10 highest-paid safeties, it’s likely he will be counted on to do bring some leadership as well. But he understands that’s something that takes time to develop.
"When I was a rookie coming in, my second year, I felt like the secondary room was like a revolving door,” Amos recalled. “By my second year, I was basically the most experienced player in the room. I have experience with that. If I put all four of my years together, I think my second year was a learning year for the full situation. I feel like I’ve had enough adversity and I’ve had success, so I have a plan for how things should look and how things should work. I think it could be great. I don’t know the room yet. I’ll probably learn a lot from other people, too. I’m not coming in saying I’ve got it all figured out or anything like that. We’re all just coming in, working together. I’m not deeming myself a leader; if they find me as a leader, then that’s going to happen. That’s not something I come in and say, ‘I’m a leader.’”
Preston Smith riding iron-man streak
He has several years yet before reaching Brett Favre territory, but the Packers were well aware of Preston Smith’s iron-man streak.
In four years with Washington, Smith never missed a game. It’s remarkable given the rigors of playing on the edge. Nick Perry and Clay Matthews combined to miss 21 games with the Packers over the past four seasons.
Smith played all 64.
“It’s pretty easy to get hurt in such a violent sport,” Smith said. “I try to take care of my body week in and week out and make sure I take the right steps to make sure that I can play on Sunday and that I’m healthy enough to be out there for my team each and every week.”
Gutekunst called a proven track record of health “another piece of the puzzle” in deciding which free agents to target. In outside linebackers Preston and Za’Darius Smith, safety Amos and offensive lineman Billy Turner, the Packers signed four players who are still young (Turner, the oldest, won’t turn 28 until October) and without major injury in their careers.
The Packers in particular have seen the importance of good health on the edge of their defensive front. While Matthews and especially Perry struggled to stay healthy over the years, they found stability for three seasons with Julius Peppers. Being able to rely on the same rushers weekly through a long season not only ensures the optimal personnel is on the field, but also helps the coaching staff devise game plans.
Pressed on the last time he missed a game because of injury, Preston Smith couldn’t come up with an answer. “I don’t remember,” he said. (The last time he missed a game happens to be his junior year at Mississippi State in 2013.) That’s an answer the Packers certainly appreciate.
At Washington, Smith said, he never even came close to missing a game. He hopes that continues with his new team.
“I never had any questionable moments or game-time decisions,” Smith said. “I always made sure I handled those problems during the week so by Sunday I was fully ready to go.”
Turner looks forward to facing Vikings
Billy Turner, a Minnesota native, certainly was aware of the Minnesota Vikings' need for offensive line help this offseason.
It has been an issue for the Vikings over the past few seasons, not just this year. Yet when the Vikings had a chance to sign one of their own, they passed.
Turner certainly noticed. In the final question from the media, Turner was asked if it fueled him for "Minnesota" to overlook him. The question was in reference to the Gophers not offering Turner a scholarship coming out of high school. He instead played college football at North Dakota State.
Clearly, Turner thought he was being asked about the Vikings. And he did not hold back.
“I thrive on fuel,” he said, “but at the same time that’s their loss, and they’re going to have to deal with me twice a year. So they’ll figure it out sooner or later, and they’re probably going to be too late at that point. I’ve signed my deal here, and this is where I wanted to be. So if you ask me, they’re just going to have to deal with the aftermath.”
Clay Matthews capable of helping 'somebody'
Gutekunst said his team might be done signing players off the open market, especially if the Packers can find a good bargain in free agency’s second or third wave.
It appears unlikely linebacker Clay Matthews will be one of them.
“I think Clay’s a great player,” Gutekunst said when asked if Matthews might return, “and he can play for any team in this league. So, if that comes, he will help somebody if it’s not us.”
The Los Angeles Rams are said to be among teams interested in the veteran linebacker. Matthews, who played college football at USC, keeps a home near his hometown in the Los Angeles area. The Rams have defensive personnel ideally situated to fit Matthews, who profiles as a situational pass rusher at this stage in his career.
Regardless of where he ends up, Matthews’ 10-year career in Green Bay could be over. If so, he’ll leave as the Packers’ all-time sacks leader.
Clinton-Dix to Bears; Nelson out in Oakland
A couple of former Packers were in the news Thursday.
Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, traded to Washington last season for a fourth-round pick, signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract with the rival Chicago Bears.
Meanwhile, former Packers receiver Jordy Nelson reportedly was released by the Oakland Raiders, who have signed star receivers Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams.