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Packers’ Defensive Box Now Has Matching Bookends

Preston Smith chases Aaron Rodgers

Aaron Rodgers (12) runs with the ball as Washington Redskins linebacker Preston Smith (94) chases in the second quarter at FedEx Field. The Redskins won 31-17. Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Smith, noun (plural smiths) – A craftsperson who works metal into desired forms using a hammer and other tools, sometimes heating the metal to make it more workable, especially a blacksmith.

Edge rushers are the new rock stars of the NFL. While our prima donna wide receivers usually have to score a touchdown before going into their dance, any time a pass rusher gets a sack, or even a tackle for a loss of yardage, it calls for some choreography.

Edge rushers are even pushing quarterbacks in terms of fame, name familiarity, and salary. J.J. Watt was one of the first such celebrities, followed by Vic Beasley, Von Miller, and Khalil Mack. And even before J.J, there was a guy named Clay.

While most Packers fans, myself included, were chanting sack-sack-sack, the team’s leadership had something else in mind. I imagine that the chief architect of the Packers outside linebacker plans was the dour one, Mike Pettine. Green Bay went out and signed up two complete players, not just a couple one-dimensional sack specialists – imagine that!

What’s particularly remarkable about obtaining the two smiths is how similar they are. They are both big and both tall: Preston goes 6’5” and 265 pounds; Z is just a bit stouter, at 6’4”, 272 pounds.

Playing for Mississippi State, Preston was named first-team All-SEC in 2014. Za’Darius spent two years at East Mississippi Community College, then transferred to the University of Kentucky for his final two years. Z made one expert’s list as third-team All-SEC. Both are small-town Southerners: Z hails from Alabama and Preston from Georgia.

The two 26-year-olds were born just a couple months apart. Each was drafted in 2015; Preston went early in the second round by the Redskins, 38th overall, while Z went in Round 4 to the Ravens. Each has played with just one NFL team to date.

Preston played little in his first year, but has been a starter the last three years. Z got more action as a rookie, but has been slower to crack the lineup. Each is coming off of his best year.

Za’Darius, a starter in eight of the Ravens’ games last season, tallied these numbers: 45 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 25 QB hits, two passes defended, and one forced fumble. He led his team in sacks, and was sixth in tackles. Preston recorded 53 tackles, four sacks, 16 QB hits, three passes defended, and one fumble recovery.

For his career Preston has 24.5 sacks, including two eight-sack seasons in 2015 and 2017. Za’Darius has 18.5 sacks, including 8.5 in 2018.

Each has been in one playoff game. Last season Z’s Ravens lost 23-17 to the Chargers. Preston and the Skins lost 35-18 in 2015 – to the Packers. Preston dragged down Aaron Rodgers for a safety in that contest.

The Smiths are two behemoths who have managed to stay healthy both in college and the pros. Neither missed a game in 2018, and Preston has never missed a game in his four years with the Skins.

I haven’t heard anything negative about either player have “character issues”.

Pay-wise, the two had some separation. Za’Darius commanded $16M per year, while Preston settled for $12M. That probably means the Packers see a bit more potential in Z, though it could also indicate that he had the tougher negotiator.

Bottom Line

McCarthy always preached that the starting point of a good defense was stopping the run — while Pettine likes to point out that most yardage gained against a defense comes from the passing game, so that’s his focus.

Regardless, whoever the key people were in securing these two promising guys, we should expect them to be both strong against the run and supplying lots of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Let’s not be too quick to rate this twosome simply by counting sacks. It might well be that the defense’s biggest improvement in 2019 will be at stifling opposing rushers.

If so, that should lead to more third-down-and-long situations, which in turn should result in fewer long scoring drives by opponents, and more favorable field position increased time of possession for the Pack.

Rob Born

Smart drafters don’t select the best available players, they fill a team’s positions of greatest need.



  1. MJ March 14, 2019

    Killer start to the article, that Smith definition.
    Regarding what’s more important ro stop, I would say: whatever you are worse at. Unless you are already winning by a couple of possessions, they will lean on what you defend less well.
    Do you have a very fancy pass defense, with fast penetrating DTs, good coverage safeties and good man corners? Screw that, they will run it through the middle, they will run it off tackle, they can run screens and dump offs. Maybe make a few quick passes here and there. All that while keeping their offense on the field and wearing down your D.

  2. Howard March 14, 2019

    One thing to remember about both players. Both I believe played on the defensive line, as ends in college. The Ravens and Redskins have spent the years converting both to OLBs. How many college defensive lineman have the Packers been able to successfully convert to OLBs?

    I like that both the Redskins and Ravens are typically very physical and aggressive defenses.The Smiths have been groomed in physical minded defenses that enjoy defending the run almost as much as getting after the QB.

    1. MJ March 14, 2019

      Hehehe, they developed them, we pilfered them. Seriously, that approach is not unreasonable for pass rushers, unless they are the second coming of Von Miller, where the team will lock them up before FA. However, even slightly decent rushers sometimes don’t make it to FA, due to a genuine scarcity of talent at the position. So, a lot of times teams have to “waste” rookie contracts while they develop them, only to pay them FA premiums once they are serviceable.

      For TEs I prefer the they-develop-we-pilfer approach, as TEs don’t have a huge impact in the game, and you can find good ones in FA, and they take surprisingly long to transition to the pros.