Packers notes: Za'Darius and Preston Smith, Rashan Gary mixing and matching up front

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GREEN BAY - With general manager Brian Gutekunst prioritizing positional versatility this offseason, the Green Bay Packers adjusted how they’re training their defensive front.

Cohesion between defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery and outside linebackers coach Mike Smith is especially important. Montgomery is one of the few holdovers from last season’s defensive staff. Smith, who was with the Kansas City Chiefs last season, is new to the Packers but has previously coached with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

Smith is the position coach for Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary, three primary additions this spring to the Packers' defense. Each could play snaps on the defensive line. So outside linebackers and defensive linemen will be training together often through the offseason.

That starts with communication between the two position coaches.

“Me and Jerry talk every morning,” Mike Smith said. “There’s periods that we do together. There’s a period I’ll send Z and Gary with the D-line for the first three or four minutes of individual. I think twice a week we do pass rush together. You’ve got to be on the same page.

Green Bay Packers linebacker Za'Darius Smith (55) and linebacker Preston Smith (91) during a team practice at the Don Hutson Center on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

“Me and Jerry on the same page. It might be the best relationship I’ve had with a coach since I’ve been doing outside linebackers.”

Montgomery said he has worked with outside linebackers on “run fundamentals” along the defensive line. Likewise, Smith has worked with interior linemen on pass rush. It’s a natural split, with each facet tailoring to that coach’s strength.

The two positions also work together in other drills at practice.

“We’ve kind of mixed and matched a little bit,” Montgomery said. “There will be some guys that maybe play inside on certain downs that I’ll work with also. I’m a run-first guy, and he’s a pass-first guy. So now you’ve got the best of both worlds.”

The Packers are also changing how they train their secondary. After they went down to one position coach after having two last season, defensive backs coach Jason Simmons is leading safeties and cornerbacks. Simmons said safeties and cornerbacks almost always meet together in the same room, especially when discussing pass coverage. Safeties occasionally meet with linebackers separately from corners, Simmons said.

In the past, the Packers would sometimes hold joint meetings between safeties and corners, but they had separate meeting rooms for other meetings.

“The biggest thing,” Simmons said, “is it allows for greater continuity on the back end, for the corners and the safeties to be on the same page. That’s the biggest thing, because everybody knows where the strengths and the weaknesses with every coverage are.

“The biggest thing I talk about, particularly in this defense, that Mike Pettine wants us to do is have continuity on all three levels of the defense.”

Pettine pleased to have a head start

Pettine is in his second year guiding the Packers defense, but a plethora of significant newcomers are in their first offseason with his system.

Three of the Packers’ four primary free-agent signings this spring were on defense. Gutekunst then drafted five defenders, including a pair of first-round picks. There are also four new position coaches on Pettine’s staff.

“A little bit,” Pettine said when asked if it felt a little like his first year with this defense.

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The difference, he said, is having tape to study from last season. Pettine spent time this spring evaluating what the Packers' defense did well, and not so well, in 2018. He then took a step back for a “30,000-foot view” of the league as a whole, learning what other teams were doing.

“We really tightened down,” Pettine said, “and cleaned up a lot of stuff that we did last year. Took some things out, and we feel like we improved some other things. It was nice walking into the room, though, in phase one — even before the rookies, or we had rookies — and virtually everybody had been through it except for the new free agents. So we were able to just really pick up where we left off.

“Even though there is some Year 1 feel, we do feel like we’re significantly ahead of where we were last year.”

Simmons on Jones’ absence: “This is voluntary”

On Monday and Tuesday, the Packers hit the practice fields for the first of their organized team activities. Tuesday’s session was open to the media and safety Josh Jones, among others, was not present. On Wednesday, Simmons reminded fans that the schedule of OTAs on Clarke Hinkle Field were collectively bargained to be voluntary sessions.

“The one thing I say about OTAs is this is voluntary, so you have the opportunity to do that,” Simmons said. “I can’t look down on anybody who decides to not come to something that’s voluntary.”

Jones, a third-year safety drafted in the second round of the 2017 draft, made it known to the club that he wants to be traded and did not come to Green Bay for the OTAs this week.

“He’s still a big, fast, physical safety that we drafted and we drafted early,” Simmons said. “He’s shown some versatility. He’s played the dime, he’s played the box, played deep. When he comes in, all we can continue to do is develop his skill set.”

All hands get a shot at kick return

The Packers have 90 men on their roster, but only a few have returned kicks and punts in the NFL. So, new special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga is going to use the three OTAs and one mandatory minicamp period to find out what he has back there.

His two most experienced returners remain Trevor Davis and Tramon Williams.

“We’re trying a whole host of guys,” Mennenga said. “We’re giving everybody the opportunity that’s done it. Through phase one they can’t do anything. In phase two they can’t catch balls off JUGS (machines) so this is really the first opportunity they’ve had through the voluntary minicamp and these first two OTA practices to actually catch a ball off JUGS or off a foot, so we’re throwing a lot of guys back there and giving them a lot of opportunities and then we’ll continue to drill them and carry it on through training camp. We’re evaluating a whole bunch of guys.”

Skill-position players who have handled the ball on a kick return in games include Trevor Davis (35 returns, 791 yards), Tramon Williams (32-710), Kapri Bibbs (10-168), Jawill Davis (7-171), J’Mon Moore (4-102), Jamaal Williams (4-95), Danny Vitale (1-18) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (1-21)

Those who have fielded a punt include Williams (74, 663), Trevor Davis (37-448), Jawill Davis (12-89), Jaire Alexander (4-25), Josh Jackson (2-0), Geronimo Allison (1-0) and Kevin King (1-0).

Draft picks Darnell Savage (1-36) and Ka’dar Hollman (1-0) fielded a punt in college and Dexter Williams returned five kicks for 87 yards.

Mennenga said players such as Williams and Alexander, who figure to have key roles at their first positions, are still getting reps at returning kicks.

“They’re in the mix with everybody,” Mennenga said. “This is the time of year to get them as many catches in, and then through training camp and stuff, just to continue to evaluate and develop guys, give everyone that chance to show what they can do.”

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