I didn’t include Za’Darius Smith among the 20 free agents the Packers should consider signing in the last newsletter. Not because I didn’t think he was a good young player, but because I didn’t think general manager Brian Gutekunst would be willing to pay $12 million per for an outside linebacker whose best season came in his contract year, and to be perfectly honest, whose best season wasn’t all that great.
Well, I was right. Gutekunst wasn’t willing to pay Smith $12 million per; he was willing to pay $16.5 million per. That yearly average puts the former Baltimore Raven in the same financial neighborhood as Chandler Jones (Cardinals) and Melvin Ingram (Chargers). They have combined for 119 career sacks and four Pro Bowls. Smith has 18.5 career sacks and has been to as many Pro Bowls as Reggie Gilbert.
Few things have truly shocked me in the 30-plus years I’ve been writing about the National Football League. Smith’s contract shocked me. My first thought was that I must’ve missed something when I analyzed his tape a few weeks ago. After all, due to time constraints – darn job – I only watched a few of his games. So I went back and watched every snap of every game from last season. Here’s what I saw:
The best thing about the former Kentucky star is his versatility. He’s capable of rushing from anywhere. In fact, he proved to be most effective last season when lined up at tackle. That’s because the 26-year-old not only has the quickness to make life miserable for interior offensive linemen, but he also has enough strength to overpower players who outweigh him by 30 or 40 pounds. You don’t see that very often from outside linebackers – even ones who are as big as Smith (6-4, 272). He’s also relentless. If his initial charge isn’t effective, unlike many big guys, he’ll keep working.
The following plays from last season are perfect examples of Smith (#90) using his unique combination of quickness, strength, and tenacity to make life miserable for QBs. Among these plays, you’ll see 5 of his 8.5 sacks.
Lined up between Cleveland’s right guard and right tackle, Smith disengages from Kevin Zeitler (#70) and races by Chris Hubbard (#74) on his way to quarterback Baker Mayfield. He arrives a split-second too late to prevent the TD.
Lined up between Cleveland’s left tackle and left guard, Smith sees a potential soft spot and takes advantage of it by overpowering center JC Tretter (#64). While he once again arrives a split-second late, this time he hurries Mayfield into a pick.
Lined up over Tennessee’s right guard, Smith uses his strength to push Josh Kline (#64) back 5 yards before sacking quarterback Marcus Mariota.
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