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.
No part of the Green Bay Packers’ roster received more attention last offseason than outside linebacker. The team made its two biggest free-agent splashes at the position while also investing its highest draft pick in a decade there as well. Those moves played a critical role in improving the defense from one of the NFL’s least-intimidating units into a capable force for most of the year.
How acquired: Signed to four-year, $66 million contract
During an offseason in which the Packers dove into free agency more aggressively than any recent year, no player commanded more of their attention than Za’Darius Smith. A former Day 3 pick, Smith developed into a quality pass rusher for the Baltimore Ravens, taking on a de facto starting role on the defense his breakout 2018 campaign. Smith finished that year with 8.5 sacks — his highest total at that time — while lining up in a number of places across the defensive front.
Rather than simply reproduce that play in Green Bay, Smith developed into an even more complete player. He upped his sack total to 13.5 while leading the Packers with 37 quarterback hits and 17 tackles for loss. Smith’s dominance reached its peak in an important Week 16 matchup with the Vikings. The prized addition sacked Kirk Cousins 3.5 times while disrupting one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses in the process.
How acquired: Signed to four-year, $52 million contract
While the aforementioned Smith garnered more attention in 2019, teammate Preston Smith also delivered a career-best performance in 2019. The former Washington edge rusher recorded double-digit sacks for the first time while coming in second on the Packers in quarterback hits (23) and tackles for loss (11).
Though Preston Smith spent most of his time on the edge, he moved around the defensive front to create mismatches. Throughout the season, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine lined up both Smiths on the same side to overload opposing offensive lines. This approach led to some of the team’s best defensive plays, including a game-sealing sack of Chicago Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky in the season opener.
How acquired: Drafted in first round (No. 12 overall)
Rashan Gary represents a football Rorschach test. Those that value athletic testing and believe that NFL coaching can elevate talented prospects see a future worldbeater capable of transforming the Packers defense. Those that take issue with middling college production and inconsistent technique view his selection as a reach and one of the few mistakes committed by general manager Brian Gutekunst last offseason.
Regardless of which side one falls on, few expected Gary to make much of an impact as a rookie. He arrived as a raw talent and began his career behind both Smiths as well as fourth-year linebacker Kyler Fackrell. Given that depth, the Packers could afford to use Gary sparingly in 2019.
But while the team effectively redshirted Gary this past season, the coaches expect considerably more from him during his second year. Not only must he deliver more consistent production when called upon, but the 6-foot-5, 277-pound Gary must establish himself as a versatile defender similar to the Smiths.