GREEN BAY – As he corralled Aaron Rodgers three years ago, bringing him to the ground in the end zone at FedEx Field, Preston Smith looked every bit like a budding star.
He’d just finished his first NFL season with eight sacks. No rookie matched him, not even eighth overall pick Vic Beasley of the Atlanta Falcons.
Now it was the first quarter of his first playoff game, a third-and-13 inside the 5-yard line, and Smith put Green Bay Packers reserve left tackle JC Tretter on skates. He drove Tretter behind the goal line, then into Rodgers’ lap.
Smith had five sacks in the final three weeks of his rookie season of 2015. He opened the NFC wild-card game with a safety.
“That rookie is red hot,” Joe Buck said on the FOX broadcast.
It was the kind of momentum-changing play that can win playoff games. Instead, the Packers won going away that wild-card afternoon, beating Washington 35-18. Still, Smith’s future looked bright.
None of it was surprising. A second-round pick out of Mississippi State in the spring of 2015, this was precisely what Preston Smith was drafted to do. There were Pro Bowls in his future. Maybe even All-Pro selections.
It would be disingenuous to say Smith has been disappointing since then. A lucrative four-year, $52 million second contract doesn’t exactly make for a compelling redemption story. Smith has been a dependable, if not always dominant, starter in Washington’s defense the past three seasons. He’s never missed a game in his NFL career, a streak that no doubt impressed the Packers.
They signed him to be a stalwart on their defense’s edge, a difference maker. That’s precisely what Smith expects, too.
First, there’s another level he must reach.
“I feel like I have a high ceiling,” Smith said, “and I just have to keep working on my craft, perfecting my technique.”
Only 26 years old, Smith still has time to reach his high ceiling. It’s maybe the biggest reason the Packers paid an open-market premium to sign him. Smith’s best football should be ahead, not behind.
Since Smith’s rookie season, his production has come in spurts. Just 4.5 sacks in 2016. Back up to eight in 2017. Then four last season in a contract year. He has shown glimpses of that budding star, capable of becoming one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers. Smith has 49 quarterback hits the past three years, including 16 last season.
He’ll need to finish those plays more often, year in and year out, to reward the Packers’ investment in him.
“I put pressure on myself,” Smith said. “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.”
The Packers signed Smith to sack the quarterback, yes, but that’s only one of his responsibilities as an outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s system. What lured general manager Brian Gutekunst was Smith’s ability to be a well-rounded defender. He has the power to set an edge against the run on early downs, allowing the Packers to keep him on the field regardless the situation.
Billy Turner, the offensive lineman who signed with the Packers last week, hasn’t blocked Smith in a game, but his teams have played against Washington twice.
“He’s an elite pass rusher,” Turner said of Smith, “but he can do it all.”
Smith’s game is based in his strength. He doesn’t have the quick-twitch burst off the line of scrimmage of some pass rushers in this spring’s draft, running a respectable but ordinary 4.74 40 at the combine in 2015.
Regardless, Smith finds his way to the quarterback. He’s athletic enough to complement his raw power coming off the edge.
“You don’t ever want the quarterback to be in the pocket comfortably,” Smith said. “You want to rattle his cage and make sure that he feels your presence while he’s back there in the pocket. Whether he steps up and feels your presence, or he steps back and rolls out, you want him to not have a comfortable pocket, not be able to make passes comfortably.
“You want to make him move his point of where he wants to throw the ball (from), you want to make him make throws that he didn’t really want to throw and force him to make throws that he doesn’t really want to throw.”
Smith doesn’t mind that he’ll be on Rodgers’ side now. One fewer elite quarterback to chase down. But he won’t soon forget that first playoff sack, even if the quarterback he corralled in the end zone now sits across the locker room.
“That was a great moment,” Smith said.
He hopes to have plenty more in Green Bay.