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.
Lined up over Tennessee’s left guard this time, Smith uses his quickness to easily get around Quinton Spain (#67). Once again, Mariota has no chance.
Lined up between Atlanta’s right tackle and right guard, Smith uses his quickness to get by Zane Beadles (#69) and sack quarterback Matt Ryan.
Lined up between Kansas City’s left tackle and left guard, Smith’s quickness is too much for Jeff Allen (#73) to handle. Also, notice how effectively Smith uses his hands. Once again, the quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) has no chance.
Lined up between San Diego’s right tackle and right guard, Smith uses his hands and his quickness to blow by Michael Schofield (#75) on his way to sacking quarterback Philip Rivers.
This isn’t the same video as the one before it, but it sure looks the same. Once again, Smith makes poor Schofield look like a human turnstile.
Rushing the quarterback as a 3-technique isn’t easy, but Smith often makes it look that way. That’s because he has a unique skill set. And while it’s not Aaron Donald or J.J. Watt unique, I haven’t seen many players who can create pressure so consistently from the interior of the defensive line.
It needs to be noted that Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale did a very nice job of scheming last season. He often had Smith matched up against the weaker of the two guards. And if the offensive tackle on that side was especially skilled, Martindale would put his best edge rusher, Terrell Suggs, on that same side to keep the tackle from helping on Smith.
The Packers have used numerous outside linebackers in a similar way the past few years (Mike Neal, Datone Jones, Julius Perry, etc.), but none came close to duplicating Smith’s success. The Ravens lined Smith up inside on 65% of all passing downs last season. If Pettine’s smart, that number will be even higher in 2019.
That’s because Smith isn’t nearly as dangerous as an edge rusher. When lined up directly across from a tackle, he relies much more on strength than quickness. It works sometimes. In the video below, watch how he overpowers Buffalo’s 320-pound Dion Dawkins (#73) on his way to the quarterback. He didn’t hit Nathan Peterman, but he made him very uncomfortable. That’s what he’ll do against average tackles.
Here’s another example. In the video below, Smith doesn’t have quite the success with Cincinnati’s 345-pound Cordy Glenn that he had with Dawkins, but he does get him moving backward and toward the quarterback. Had Andy Dalton held the ball a second longer, he would’ve been picking himself up off the fake grass.
Just 1.5 of Smith’s 8.5 sacks came when lined up at outside linebacker, but to be fair, he only rushed from that position 35% of the time. In the video below, he embarrasses veteran Jared Veldheer (#66) for a sack. While Smith doesn’t have elite quickness for an edge rusher, it’s more than good enough to beat offensive tackles who open their shoulders too quickly and become susceptible to inside counters.
The half-sack came when, once again, he simply overpowers an opponent. In the video below, young Sam Tevi (#69) has neither the size nor the strength to even slow Smith down on his way to quarterback Philip Rivers. Mediocre tackles will have their hands full with Green Bay’s prized unrestricted free agent. Inexperienced mediocre tackles will likely have nightmares.
Smith, however, is far less effective when matched up against better tackles. And while that’s true for pretty much any edge rusher, it’s even more pronounced in his case. Without exceptional take-off speed, acceleration, and closing burst, Smith often has few answers when going up against quality tackles. In the video below, he gets nowhere against New Orleans’ Ryan Ramczyk (#71), whose light-footed kick slide, excellent balance, and effective hand placement make him a terrific pass protector and quarterback Drew Brees’ best friend.
In the video below, Smith once again gets nowhere against another quality Saints tackle, Terron Armstead (#72). Whenever Smith lacks a clear advantage in strength or athleticism over an opponent, he’s more often than not unable to figure out a way to get to the quarterback.
In the video below, Smith tries his luck against Tennessee’s Taylor Lewan (#77). The veteran left tackle’s feet aren’t as quick as Ramczyk’s or Armstead’s, so he relies more on savvy and technique. Lewan simply pushes Smith out wide, making his path to the quarterback a little less direct. That’s all he needed to do on this particular play.
Here’s one last look at Smith being thwarted off the edge by a good tackle. In the video below, he lacks the speed to beat Pittsburgh’s Alejandro Villanueva (#78) around the corner. Smith tried earlier in the game to bull rush the 325-pounder, but that also proved to be ineffective.
One more thing to keep in mind when judging Smith as a pass rusher is the secondary. The Ravens covered as well as any team in the league last season. That will make any pass rusher more effective. This is not meant to diminish what Smith accomplished; it’s just meant to be honest. If he’s to approach last season’s very impressive total of 59 pressures, he’ll need Green Bay’s cornerbacks and safeties to play a lot better in 2019 than they did in 2018.
I went into this endeavor fully expecting run defense to be the strongest part of Smith’s game. After all, at 272 pounds, he’s one of the biggest outside linebackers in the league. Well, you know what they say about those who assume. While Smith has his moments versus the run, for the most part, he’s way too inconsistent – not only from week to week but from series to series. I wouldn’t necessarily call him a liability, but he should be better. A lot better.
Surprisingly, Smith struggles most against the run on first down. Instead of focusing on setting the edge, he often seems more concerned about getting up the field and after the quarterback. This makes him overaggressive and susceptible to losing contain. The following plays all occurred on 1st and 10.
In the video below, Smith should be bracing himself for taking on a double-team. Instead, he puts up very little resistance against Atlanta left tackle Jake Matthews (#70), who easily pushes him wide. This allows running back Tevin Coleman to pick up 9 yards. Had Smith simply held his ground, the Falcons likely would’ve been looking at 2nd and long instead of 2nd and 1.
Here’s another less than impressive play vs. Atlanta. In the video below, while the end result was positive for the Ravens’ defense, there’s nothing positive about seeing Smith blocked to the ground by backup tight end Eric Saubert (#85).
Similar story, different game. In the video below, Smith isn’t able to get the job done against Pittsburgh backup right tackle Matt Feiler (#71), a journeyman he should be able to dominate. Smith sees where running back James Connor is headed and is in position to make the play, but he doesn’t. The result is a 10-yard gain.
In the video below, an overly aggressive Smith misreads the play and crashes down inside too quickly. This leaves an opening for Denver running back Royce Freeman to exploit for a 9-yard gain on first down. Left tackle Garrett Bolles (#72) is more than willing to keep Smith occupied.
Smith is much more effective in the red zone and on “traditional” run downs (2nd and less than 4, 3rd and 1, etc.). This is when he seems to truly concentrate on the task at hand. In the video below, he holds his ground at the point of attack, quickly disengages from Cincinnati right tackle Bobby Hart (#68) and plays a major role in running back Joe Mixon losing 3 yards.
Here’s another nice play. In the video below, Smith is expecting a run on 2nd and 3, so rather than looking for a way to beat the man in front of him for a sack, he simply holds his ground and easily discards Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce (#87) on his way to keeping Damien Williams from picking up the first down.
In the video below, watch how well Smith holds up against Cleveland right guard Kevin Zeitler (#70) on 3rd and 8. Why can’t he do this more often when lined up at outside linebacker? Part of it is physical. Smith is simply better suited to play closer to the ball, but at 272 pounds, that’s just not feasible for 50 to 60 snaps a game. However, most of it is mental. He just needs to change his mindset on early downs.
Look, the Packers gave Smith a $20 million signing bonus because they expect him to be a disruptive pass rusher. That said, he needs to be at least above average against the run, and he wasn’t last season. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Smith has the potential to improve. He just needs to work as hard at stopping the run as he does at getting after the quarterback. Say what you will about now ex-Packer Nick Perry, but that’s exactly what he did each and every time he stepped on the field.
Smith was used in coverage just 34 times last season, and he did a pretty decent job for a player his size. He was most effective in zone schemes, but he wasn’t bad the handful of times he was required to cover man-to-man. Overall, he allowed 5 completions (6 targets) but for only 43 yards. That’s because he was almost always close enough to the receiver to limit the yards after the catch. Here are a few examples.
In the video below, Smith’s job is to cover Austin Ekeler (#30) out of the backfield. This was one of those few times he was given man-to-man responsibilities, and while he didn’t make the tackle, he forced the speedy Charger back inside where he was immediately taken to the ground. This is a very tough match-up for Smith and it’s one Pettine will obviously look to avoid.
In the video below, Smith is again asked to cover a running back man-to-man, and again, he does about as well as can be expected. Cleveland’s Carlos Hyde (#34) picks up 8 yards, but considering the route and Smith’s responsibilities on the play, it’s difficult to imagine any outside linebacker doing a better job.
In the video below, Smith drifts into zone coverage and closes very quickly on Cleveland tight end David Njoku (#85). This is how he was used most of the time last season, and this was the typical result – a short (7-yard) gain.
In the video below, Smith is again in zone coverage and this time he deflects a pass intended for Cincinnati wide receiver Tyler Boyd (#83). This would be a pretty impressive play for a safety to make – especially a safety for the Packers – let alone a 272-pound linebacker.
The Packers aren’t paying Smith $16 million a year to cover receivers, but it’s certainly a positive that he’s capable of getting the job done when called upon. This will allow Pettine to be even more creative with schemes, and in turn, it will give opposing quarterbacks yet another thing to think about at the line of scrimmage.
This is what should make Packers fans most excited. I’ve studied hundreds of defensive linemen and outside linebackers over the past 30 years, and I haven’t seen many who give a better effort than Smith. Assuming $66 million doesn’t affect his motivation, the Packers shouldn’t have to worry about this signing turning into another Joe Johnson debacle. Because when you combine an above average skill set with a great work ethic, the results are almost always positive. Here are just a few examples of Smith never giving up on a play, and eventually making something very good happen.
In the video below, Smith begins the play getting double-teamed by Buffalo’s left guard and center and ends the play chasing Nathan Peterman out of bounds. Smith was awarded a sack for his effort. This is also a good example of what it means to play faster than your 40 time (4.83).
In the video below, Smith is knocked about 5 yards sideways due to a crackback block by Cleveland wide receiver Jarvis Landry (#80). Many players would give up on the play at this point, but not Smith. Instead, he gathers himself and winds up getting in on the tackle and holding the running back to only a 1-yard gain.
In the video below, Smith is once again double-teamed – this time by Tennessee’s left tackle and left guard – and once again that doesn’t keep him from making a play. This time he keeps his head up and notices quarterback Marcus Mariota beginning to scramble. That alertness stops what could’ve been a much bigger gain.
In the video below, Smith thwarts Mariota again. This time he records a sack. This is also a good example of Smith’s physicality. He’s not dirty, but he loves to deliver a big hit. He adheres to the old Al Davis saying, “The quarterback must go down, and he must go down hard.”
The video below might my favorite hustle play of all. Look at how far Smith runs to make this tackle. And thanks to his hustle – not to mention his sneaky straight-line speed – he keeps Pittsburgh running back James Conner from almost certainly going 67 yards for a touchdown.
And if Smith didn’t already do enough on defense for the Ravens, he also contributed on special teams (28 snaps). In the video below, he blocks a field goal against San Diego. His timing is excellent and the vertical is pretty good as well.
Did Gutekunst overpay? Absolutely. Did he make a mistake? Absolutely not. As long as Smith is used correctly, he should be a very productive player for the length of his contract. He may not get double-digit sacks every season, and he may never earn a spot on the All-Pro team, but he’s going to be an integral part of what has the potential to be a very good defense.
After watching Smith, it’s obvious he’s far more effective inside than outside. That means drafting an edge rusher in the first round of next month’s draft should in no way be off the table. Even after spending close to $120 million on Smith and fellow outside linebacker Preston Smith, the defense can still use someone like Kentucky’s Josh Allen, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, Florida State’s Brian Burns or Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell. As of today, the only prototypical edge rusher on the roster is Kyler Fackrell, and it remains to be seen if his 10.5 sacks last season were a fluke. Adding an explosive rookie to the mix would give Pettine yet another option when it comes to figuring out ways to get pressure on the quarterback.
But even if a stud edge rusher isn’t delivered in a few weeks, Pettine still needs to use Smith at defensive tackle as often as possible in passing situations. This is where he’s at his best, and not taking full advantage of his unique skill set would be inexcusable. I understand that the whole world is referring to Smith as an edge rusher, but he’s not. He’s a football player. A darn good football player who has the potential to be Green Bay’s most impactful free agent signing since Charles Woodson.