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Packers 2019 training camp roster: Za’Darius and Preston Smith anchor new OLB group

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No position group on the Packers experienced a larger makeover than the outside linebackers, which saw the departure of longtime pass rusher Clay Matthews and the arrival of two high-priced free agents and a first-round draft choice.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Baltimore Ravens Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

Since the conclusion of the 2018 season, the Green Bay Packers’ roster has changed significantly. A large group of free agents, draft picks, and undrafted rookies will come to training camp to challenge for roster spots and roles on the team’s 53-man roster. Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company will break down the roster position by position and reveal our compiled predictions for the 53-man roster.

Though the Packers poured a considerable amount of resources into refreshing their defense, no position group experienced more turnover than the outside linebackers. After a decade headlined by Clay Matthews, the edge rushers will now primarily feature two high-priced free agents and the team’s top draft pick from this past April. Such a shakeup would attract considerable attention on any roster. But for a franchise as steady as Green Bay, those additions represent a genuine sea change.

Za’Darius Smith

Experience: Four seasons
2018 stats: 45 tackles (10 for loss), 25 QB hits, 8.5 sacks
How acquired: Signed as unrestricted free agent in 2019

As the headline addition of the Packers’ offseason, Za’Darius Smith finds himself tasked with improving a pass rush that ran cold at times in recent years. While not a household name -- Smith played a limited role during his first three seasons with the Baltimore Ravens prior to a breakout 2018 campaign -- he has the ability to pressure the quarterback from a number of places along the defensive front.

That versatility not only attracted the Packers’ attention, but it bodes well for his ability to perform well in Mike Pettine’s defense. The Ravens frequently kicked Smith inside during obvious passing situations, allowing him to better exploit his quickness against less athletic interior offensive linemen. That trend should continue in Green Bay, where Pettine also likes to shift his pass rushers around to create mismatches and maximize his personnel.

Preston Smith

Experience: Four seasons
2018 stats: 53 tackles (five for loss), 16 QB hits, four sacks
How acquired: Signed as unrestricted free agent in 2019

Like his more heralded new teammate Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith arrives after a promising but not consistently productive career in Washington. The latter Smith’s pass-rush production fluctuated over his four-year career, producing eight sacks during his rookie and third season while falling below five in his two other campaigns. The Packers apparently believe he can generate pressure more consistently in their defense and demonstrated that faith with a four-year, $52 million contract that includes $16 million fully guaranteed.

The Packers officially list Smith as an outside linebacker. However, as with their other major free-agent pass rusher, Smith will also see a significant amount of work as an interior defender where his athleticism can overwhelm slow-footed guards. At times, Green Bay might play both Smiths inside with other players filling the voids along the edges.

Rashan Gary

Experience: Rookie
2018 stats (at Michigan): 38 tackles (6.5 for loss), 2.5 sacks
How acquired: Selected in first round of 2019 NFL Draft

The selection of Rashan Gary with the No. 12 overall pick surprised many observers. While Gary possesses top-shelf physical tools and pedigree, he never quite lived up to expectations during his career at Michigan. Part of that, at least according to Green Bay’s front office, results from the manner in which the Wolverines used Gary, but injuries also played a role. Gary enters the NFL with a shoulder injury that could eventually require surgery.

While all those factors made Gary a head-scratching draft choice, he does fit what Pettine desires from his pass rushers. Gary’s size (6-foot-4, 277 pounds) and versatility should allow him to line up all across the defensive front and create mismatches. That should also help the Packers get Gary on the field with Za’Darius and Preston Smith at the same time, potentially creating a premium pass-rush personnel package that will keep opposing coaches up late at night.

Kyler Fackrell

Experience: Three seasons
2018 stats: 42 tackles (12 for loss), 12 QB hits, 10.5 sacks
How acquired: Drafted in third round of 2016 NFL Draft

After a quiet two seasons in the NFL, Kyler Fackrell delivered far and away his best year as a pro. His 10.5 sacks led all Packers defenders and more than doubled his career total prior to that point. That leap turned Fackrell into an unlikely fan favorite (as well as his “Sackrell” nickname).

But that production might well prove misleading. Fackrell turned nearly all of his quarterback hits into sacks, a conversation rate that appears destined for a harsh regression. Fackrell also notched most of them during two games, each against putrid NFL offensive lines. In his 14 other contests last year, he produced just 2.5 sacks and 20 total tackles.

Reggie Gilbert

Experience: Three seasons
2018 stats: 38 tackles (four for loss), eight QB hits, 2.5 sacks
How acquired: Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016

Ignored for the first two years of his career, Reggie Gilbert became a preseason sensation in 2018 and earned a regular role in the Packers defense. He registered career-best marks in nearly every statistical category and appeared in every game. Still, Gilbert faces longer odds to make the 53-man roster again given the additions Green Bay made this offseason.

Kendall Donnerson

Experience: One season
2018 stats: (None)
How acquired: Drafted in seventh round of 2018 NFL Draft

In Kendall Donnerson, the Packers have a low-risk, high-reward lottery ticket, one that spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad. If Donnerson can convert his robust athleticism into on-field ability, he could push for playing time down the road.

Greg Roberts

Experience: Rookie
2018 stats (with Baylor): 33 tackles (eight for loss), three sacks, two pass breakups
How acquired: Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019

After a four-year wait, Greg Roberts finally became a featured member of Baylor’s defense this past season. His productivity, though unspectacular, suggests he could become an NFL backup and special-teams contributor. Roberts earned a spot on the 2019 edition of Acme Packing Company’s UDFA prospectus.

Randy Ramsey

Experience: Rookie
2018 stats (with Arkansas): 32 tackles (seven for loss), three sacks, one fumble recovery
How acquired: Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019

Randy Ramsey arrives in Green Bay after starting multiple seasons for Arkansas. Though his physical gifts pale in comparison to the likewise undrafted Roberts, Ramsey has a much longer track record of production. He appeared in this year’s UDFA prospectus.