Packers uncertain whether Za'Darius Smith will be ready for season opener at Saints

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GREEN BAY - New defensive coordinator Joe Barry has yet to coach Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith in a padded practice and his wait could continue for several more weeks.

Smith has been sidelined with an unspecified back condition, and began training camp on the reserve/non-football injury list. He came off the list and took part in individual drills in a non-padded practice Aug. 16, but when the team returned to the field on Aug. 18, for the first of two practices with the New York Jets, he was not there.

The Packers’ top pass rusher and Pro Bowl selection tried to come back too soon and was back with the rehab group after his brief appearance.

“I'm not quite sure when we get ‘Z’ back,” coach Matt LaFleur said Sunday. “He’s injured right now. I know he wants to be out there. But we're going to be smart with him. He's obviously a big-time player for us. So, it definitely is a concern.”

Packers outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith looks on during the Family Night practice at Lambeau Field.

LaFleur couldn’t say definitively that Smith would be ready for the Sept. 12 opener against New Orleans, but he also characterized him as day-to-day.

General manager Brian Gutekunst said Smith’s absence is injury-related and has nothing to do with him hinting on social media that he would like his contract extended. His deal expires after the ’22 season, although Gutekunst said it was adjusted for a second time right before the start of training camp.

Details of that change were not available.

“We worked through something earlier to kind of move money around, like right at the beginning of training camp, I believe,” Gutekunst said. “I don't really talk about details with contracts, but with this specific thing, he's got an injury that we're working through.”

Outside linebackers coach Mike Smith verified that Smith was dealing with a back issue and said the veteran is frustrated with not being able to practice. He said Smith is feeling better every day, but he doesn’t want to jump the gun again on having him return only to suffer another setback.

“Obviously, we want 'Z' to be out there,” Mike Smith said. “We’ll just continue to see how it goes day by day.”

In the meantime, Preston Smith has been logging a lot of snaps in practice because Rashan Gary (groin) has also been sidelined and Randy Ramsey (foot) was placed on injured reserve. The other starter has been second-year pro Jonathan Garvin, who played 28 snaps against the Jets and 34 against the Houston Texans.

Garvin didn’t register a stat against the Jets and had a half tackle and a quarterback hit against the Texans.

Despite his lack of productivity, Mike Smith said he is expecting big things from the 6-4, 257-pound seventh-round pick in 2020. Left tackle David Bakhtiari told Smith that Garvin’s strength presented him with problems when he faced him in practice last year and Smith thinks there’s a lot to build off.

Like Gary, he has had to learn how to win in different ways than just bull-rushing when it comes to pass rushes.

“There's a lot of things that we got to clean up with him,” Smith said. “And he's still learned a lot like Rashan his first year. But he's going to be a damn good football player. He’s one of the smartest, if not the smartest in the room. He picks up things very, very fast. He’s going to have a great career

Gutekunst on a roll

Brian Gutekunst has found some gems in his first three drafts, including All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander and Pro Bowl offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins. If this training camp is any indication, it’s possible Gutekunst might have just netted his deepest draft class. 

Eric Stokes, the Packers' first-round cornerback, has taken almost exclusive first-team reps with Kevin King limited because of injuries and appears to be poised for meaningful snaps this fall, potentially making a run at a starting job. 

The Packers might have a pair of rookie starters on their offensive line in second-round center Josh Myers and fourth-round pick Royce Newman, who has gotten most of the right guard reps with the first team in the past week. 

Coach Matt LaFleur said Newman impressed Saturday against the New York Jets in his audition to be the team’s starting right guard, though he attributed quarterback Kurt Benkert’s consecutive fall downs while departing center to the rookie guard. 

“We've got to be better at the guard position,” LaFleur said. “Royce, I thought he did a lot of great things. But just on those two plays, in particular, his left foot actually crossed over behind the center's foot, and he stepped on the quarterback. So I don't think I've seen that happen two times in one series ever before.” 

Amari Rodgers, the third-round receiver, appears to have a role in LaFleur’s offense as a slot receiver. Kylin Hill, the seventh-round running back, has touchdowns in consecutive preseason games with a 22-yard catch on a screen pass against the Houston Texans and 12-yard run against the New York Jets. Both are key special teamers, with Rodgers slotted as the Packers' punt returner and Hill the kickoff returner. 

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Defensive tackle T.J. Slaton, who has shown some pass-rush potential in camp, broke through with a sack against the Jets. 

“(He’s) 6-4, 330 (pounds), 18 percent body fat,” defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery said. “He's a man, and he's got a lot of tools. If we get that going in the right direction, and using his hands, that's going to be a pretty big force in the middle, especially in the run game. We’ve just got to get him where we need him, and I think he’s doing the right things.” 

That’s the goal for the entire draft class. Showing potential in camp is one thing. Bringing it into the regular season is entirely different. 

Even if it’s early in their careers, Gutekunst said he’s optimistic with what he’s seen from his rookies. 

“It's really early, but I'm excited about what they've been able to do in their short, short time here. I think as much as what they've done on the field, and the production that they've showed is just kind of how they fit into our culture with their work ethic, and being a good teammate, those kind of things. 

“I think they're going to help our football team this year. I like the long-term future of a bunch of those guys.” 

Recent grad

Among the MBA graduates from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management was Packers personnel/football administration executive Chad Brinker, the school announced.

Brinker has been a Packers full-time front office employee since 2010, working mostly as a pro scouting assistant and salary-cap analyst. He was promoted to his position in January and was awarded his degree July 24.

U.S. News and World Report ranked the Kellogg School of Management as the fourth-best business school in the country.

Brinker, 41, was an undrafted free agent of the Jets in 2003, but did not make an NFL roster

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