For versatile Za'Darius Smith, there's more than one route to the quarterback
GREEN BAY - Khalil Mack. Von Miller. Dee Ford. Olivier Vernon. Za’Darius Smith.
The first four names have two defensive player of the year awards, six All-Pro nods, 13 Pro Bowl appearances and 14 double-digit sack seasons. They are also the top four highest-paid outside rush linebackers in the NFL annually, per the salary tracking website Spotrac.com.
Smith became No. 5 in annual value this month, making $16.5 million per year with his new four-year, $66 million deal with the Green Bay Packers. The Packers, who had tried to acquire him via trade over the last few seasons, finally got their man and feel the 26-year-old is ready to have his on-field production match the checks of the elite class of pass rushers he has joined.
Except that pass rush may not look like one would expect.
“Certainly can line up outside and rush with speed and power from the outside,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said. “But he’s also done a lot of 3-tech work. Preston (Smith) is an exceptional athlete that can do a lot of different things, on the edge and inside as well. I think it’s just, it’s shaping up and we’ll see how it goes, how Mike (Pettine) wants to use these guys. But I think the versatility is really going to help us along the front, all the way.”
What will be interesting to see develop is how exactly Packers defensive coordinator Pettine decides to use Za’Darius Smith to reach that potential.
In Baltimore, Smith played 58 games (16 starts) but he was never the No. 1 pass-rush threat. Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs were the veterans early in his career and Matt Judon emerged the last two seasons. The Ravens also spent significant draft capital on rush linebackers in 2017 to push the room.
“To pay high-end pass-rusher money for a guy that you haven’t really seen do that and wasn’t even intended that way when they needed pass rushers in Baltimore?” said an AFC North offensive coach who game-planned for the Ravens each of the last four years. “They didn’t think he was that, they didn’t sign him to that and if you think a guy really can, hell you sign him, especially when he’s your own and he’s a pass rusher.
“So this is really a ‘we’re hoping he becomes this’ type signing.”
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The Packers are banking on the fact that Smith has hit his stride and will continue to ascend, as he nearly doubled his career sack total and put together his best season last year with 8.5 quarterback takedowns. Three of those came against Tennessee and then-Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, now the Packers’ head coach.
“I just took my job more serious,” Smith said of his breakout campaign. “I was on a roll of building as a player and I reached my potential. As of now, I’m still there.”
Now in Green Bay, even with the signing of Preston Smith, the presence of Kyler Fackrell and perhaps even more rush acquisitions, that potential must be completely realized. Smith will be the guy now.
“If you’re paying that much, you’re not a hybrid anymore — you’re an end,” the AFC North coach said. “And you better be a real dude. Or we’re going to play you out there and you’re going to get every shot to be that guy. But he’s going to be the powerful rusher that has some speed, not just the Clay Matthews run-around-you, explosive (in) that way guy. This guy has range and length and he can walk the tackles back into the quarterback, probably, type rusher.”
The coach did acknowledge Smith was always a concern and accounted for in their weekly prep, largely because he was a threat on the offensive interior in Baltimore’s scheme.
“He did (stand out),” the coach said. “That’s how I remember him. Like (former Baltimore linebacker Pernell) McPhee as an inside guy, used on (tight end) games and stuff. He was good because he’s quick, he can get up the field in the gap and draw two blockers for the loop-around guy.”
It’s a skill set that fits nicely into how Pettine has schemed pass rush over the years.
Meaning, you will not see Smith just line up outside of the tackle and bend around the edge. Rather, he will be counted on to use speed and the power of his 6-foot, 4-inch, 272-pound frame to wreak havoc along the line of scrimmage.
“I think he fits in great with what they’re doing there because Pettine does not dial up traditional edge-rush concepts the same way most defensive coordinators do,” said Sports Illustrated film analyst Andy Benoit, who watched each of Smith’s snaps in 2018.
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“He generates pressure through his designs and his fronts. Za’Darius reminds me a lot of Pernell McPhee, and Pernell was always very good at going left and right within confined areas. He could move horizontally very well. Smith’s better at it I think than McPhee was. McPhee was a little bit better just purely coming off the edge than Smith is, but Smith is a better inside, one-on-one pass rusher than McPhee was. And I think Pettine is going to use that a lot.”
Benoit noted Smith developed in what is essentially the Rex Ryan 3-4 defense, one Pettine — a former Ryan assistant — has maintained the bones of in his own system. Benoit said Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney could be a good comparison as well, as Clowney and Smith are adept at inside disruption even if they line up in a two-point stance.
Smith might be paid like — and classified as — a traditional “edge” rusher, but he should be more flexible than that for the Packers.