Packers undergo sweeping revamp of outside LB corps
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — In Baltimore, Za’Darius Smith played second fiddle to Terrell Suggs.
In Washington, Preston Smith was the trusty sidekick to Ryan Kerrigan.
With Green Bay, Kyler Fackrell toiled behind veteran starters Clay Matthews and Nick Perry.
In a sweeping revamp of the outside linebacker group, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst signed the Smiths to massive free-agent contracts, released Perry, allowed Matthews to sign with the Rams, and used a first-round draft pick on Rashan Gary.
The Packers are betting on the new starting tandem of Smith and Smith to give the pass rush a much-needed lift. It could hardly be worse. Matthews got only 3 1-2 sacks, the fourth consecutive season with less than eight sacks for the six-time Pro Bowler. Perry had 1 1-2 sacks in an injury-plagued 2018 season, a far cry from his career-high 11 in 2016.
The Smiths, however, never were the best pass rushers on their former teams. Za’Darius Smith had a career-high 8 1-2 sacks for the Ravens last season, giving him a total of 18 1-2 in four seasons. Preston Smith had a career-low four sacks for the Redskins last season, giving him a total of 24 1-2 in his four seasons.
Nonetheless, with a four-year, $66 million contract for Za’Darius Smith and a four-year, $52 million contract for Preston Smith, the Packers’ new outside linebacker tandem should be tone setters on defense.
“You said ‘should be?’” Za’Darius Smith said after Wednesday’s organized team activity. “We are. They brought us here for a reason.”
The reason is to get after the quarterback. While the Packers ranked seventh in sack percentage, their pass rush on a play-to-play basis was lacking. With the additions of the Smiths and Gary, plus the return of Fackrell, who had a career-high 10 1-2 sacks last season, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine hopes he can get more pressure through personnel rather than scheme.
Yet, their skill sets will allow Pettine to be creative. With the Ravens, Za’Darius Smith lined up at outside linebacker on some plays, but moved to defensive tackle in passing situations. Gary is viewed as having the same skills. Preston Smith is more of a traditional outside linebacker. Fackrell had a big season as a pass rusher but is comfortable dropping into coverage.
“What I like about the room is that it’s not all the same guy,” Pettine said last week. “I think in every position room you need to have that variation in skill set so that way you can do some different things with different guys and move them around. We’re obviously very encouraged about that room and what they’re going to be able to do for us.”
With Za’Darius Smith and Gary having the size to rush from the interior, outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said the Packers will use the Smiths, Gary and Fackrell as a foursome in some passing situations.
“It really challenges you if you want a certain protection scheme and you have no idea where he’s going to line up. It’s hard to do that because some of the protections are totally dictated upon how you call a concept,” first-year coach Matt LaFleur said.
The key for the Packers will be turning potential into defense-changing production. Neither of the Smiths has reached double-digit sacks in a season. Fackrell’s breakout season came on the heels of a total of five sacks his first two seasons. Gary, the 12th overall selection in last month’s draft, had only 9 1-2 QB traps in three seasons at Michigan.
Nonetheless, Mike Smith last week said he rated Gary the best outside linebacker prospect in the draft - even ahead of Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, who went No. 2 overall to San Francisco. While the Smiths are embracing their new opportunities, Gary is embracing the high expectations.
“I don’t put nobody in front of me,” Gary said. “I feel like I’m the best at what I do and now that I’m here I’m still working for that. I learn from Z, I learn from Preston, so there’s still a long way I’ve got to go, but I never put nobody in front of me.”
Notes: Five players did not practice Wednesday. S Josh Jones continues to skip the voluntary offseason workouts as he pushes for a trade, and center Corey Linsley was a late arrival due to travel issues. DT Mike Daniels and rookie LBs Ty Summers and Greg Roberts were present but recovering from injuries. . WR Davante Adams, who did not practice in front of reporters last week, was on the field. “It’s good to be out there with the team, getting some reps in, working with the new offense,” he said. . Incumbent K Mason Crosby went 4 of 5 on field goals while challenger Sam Ficken made all five attempts.