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Packers 2019 roster grades: Za’Darius and Preston Smith lift once-moribund unit to prominence

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The Packers’ offseason additions of Za’Darius and Preston Smith turned a weakness on the defense into a strength.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Each winter, Acme Packing Company breaks down the Green Bay Packers’ roster from the previous year by position to examine the team’s performance and needs in the offseason. We continue with a look at the outside linebackers.

A year ago, the Green Bay Packers entered the offseason in dire need of new blood at outside linebacker. Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the team’s starting tandem for several years, failed to make much of a dent in opposing offenses in 2018. With Matthews’ contract expiring and Perry’s putting him at risk of becoming a cap casualty, the Packers approached free agency with little certainty at the position.

General manager Brian Gutekunst responded with perhaps his finest moves since assuming control of the front office a season earlier. On the first day of the new league year, he signed Baltimore Ravens pass rusher Za’Darius Smith and Washington edge rusher Preston Smith to lucrative multiyear deals. Though the team added other talents to the defense during free agency and the draft, the Smith tandem became the crux of Green Bay’s defensive successes this past season.

Starters: Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith

No entity on the roster came to characterize the rejuvenated Packers more than the “Smith brothers.” Each member of the tandem enjoyed career years, combining for 111 tackles, 60 quarterback hits, 25.5 sacks, and 28 tackles for loss. Though the team has featured high-level pass rushers in the past, rarely has a duo performed at such a high level.

But while both players took on important roles on the defense, Za’Darius Smith became the unquestioned leader of the unit. In a critical Week 16 game against the division-rival Minnesota Vikings, he recorded 3.5 sacks and five quarterback hits, overwhelming a previously high-functioning offense and delivering an NFC North-clinching victory for Green Bay.

Ultimately, the addition of the Smiths didn’t turn the Packers into an elite defensive team. However, they elevated the unit to prominence after several years of inadequate play, more than justifying their respective price tags.

Backups: Rashan Gary, Kyler Fackrell

In a surprise move, the Packers invested the No. 12 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft on Michigan pass rusher Rashan Gary. Though Gary dominated the combine with fantastic workouts and came with the pedigree of a former five-star recruit, he never delivered the type of production in college expected of such a ballyhooed prospect. Green Bay knew that he would require significant time to develop, especially after deciding to move him from the defensive line to outside linebacker.

While Gary’s ceiling remains high, he did little as a rookie to prove the Packers right for selecting him so early. He finished the regular season with just 21 tackles, three quarterback hits, and two sacks. Gary also never played more than 36% of the team’s defensive snaps in a game and saw his usage decline down the stretch. He played just 15% of snaps during the divisional round and only 5% in the NFC title game.

As for Kyler Fackrell, the Packers’ other backup outside linebacker, 2019 saw his production regress in every major category. A season after delivering double-digit sacks, Fackrell finished with just one despite still playing a significant percentage of snaps. That drop-off didn’t come as a surprise, as he managed to turn all but one of his quarterback hits from a year ago into sacks, an unsustainable conversion rate.

Overall grade: A

The production from the backups left a lot to be desired, but the tremendous play from the two Smiths covered up those issues and then some. For most of the 2019 season, opposing quarterbacks might well have heard this song in their heads: