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Matt LaFleur’s DC in Tennessee hand-picked Za’Darius Smith when the Ravens drafted him

According to The Athletic Baltimore, former Ravens defensive coordinate Dean Pees identified Za’Darius Smith as a draft target. Pees later worked opposite LaFleur with the Titans.

Wild Card Round - San Diego Chargers v Baltimore Ravens
Za’Darius Smith impressed the Ravens so much coming out of Kentucky, they believed he was already a “Raven” before they drafted him.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Za’Darius Smith’s hefty pricetag shocked fans, media, and NFL circles when Brian Gutekunst gave him four years and $60 million. But connecting the dots, finding reasons as to why the Green Bay Packers might have valued Smith above other teams, mitigates some of the shock.

Not only did new director of football operations Milt Hendrickson work in the Ravens front office when Baltimore drafted him back in 2015, but add in Smith’s dominating performance against Matt LaFleur’s Titans offense last season and the reasons for Green Bay’s interest in Smith shouldn’t come as a surprise. Reports after the signing also indicated the Packers previously made multiple attempts to trade for Smith, signaling an interest long before Hendrickson or LaFleur arrived.

As it turns out, that Titans connection was even stronger than we knew. According to The Athletic Baltimore’s Jeff Zrebiec, then-Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees identified Smith at his Kentucky pro day as a fit for the team, even going so far as to say Smith is already a Raven. In an interview on Locked on Packers, Zrebiec describes the conversation this way:

“Dean Pees was the guy who, at Kentucky’s pro day, went up to Za’Darius Smith and said ‘Look, you’re a Raven. We’re going to make you a Raven. You play just like them.’ Dean and Za’Darius were very close.”

You can listen to the full interview here.

That kind of sign-off comes with its own gravitas considering how well-respected Pees is within NFL circles as a defensive mind. Add in the fact Pees later coached alongside LaFleur in Tennessee and that rubber stamp only amplifies.

None of this proves the price tag the Packers paid for Smith will ultimately be worth it (I’d still love to know against whom Green Bay was bidding and if they ever considered going anywhere near what he ultimately got). However, it provides a trail of evidence as to how they ultimately reached this decision.

It could also provide some hints as to why the Ravens allowed Smith to walk. If he was Pees’ guy, and Pees was gone, there are fewer advocates for him in the building. Zrebiec also says in the interview the Ravens would have been fine bringing Smith back at a lower number, but weren’t prepared to pay him what the Packers ultimately offered.