On Friday, NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo broke the news that Packers All-Pro pass-rusher Za’Darius Smith had back surgery earlier in the week. Garafolo tweeted, “He’s expected to be out an extended period of time, though the hope is it’s not a season-ending situation.”
Smith has been dealing with his back injury since camp when he began the summer on the Packers’ physically unable to perform list. He practiced once in camp before returning to the rehabilitation process again but suited up for the Packers in Week 1 as a designated pass-rusher. On the following Friday, head coach Matt LaFleur told the media that Smith was going to be shut down “for a while,” with the silver lining being that hopefully after a three-week stint on the injured reserve list that Smith would return healthy.
Two weeks to the date since that announcement, the silver lining has been lost in the clouds. Sports Illustrated’s Bill Huber went as far as to tweet that “The hope is just that. A hope. It’s not the expectation.” Crushing news. Point blank.
Z out a long time is not a surprise. The hope is just that. A hope. It’s not the expectation. https://t.co/k6w6lgdWVe— Bill Huber (@BillHuberSI) October 1, 2021
While we don’t have specifics on the back injury or the surgery, it is worth noting that Smith is essentially in a “prove-it” season with the Packers. The team converted his salary into a signing bonus, a mechanic that the front office can do without the permission of Smith, leaving the pass-rusher with a cap hit of $28.1 million on the books in 2022. Why does that matter? The team would save nearly $16 million in cap space next year by releasing or trading Smith, at the age of 30, per Spotrac. The Packers would also save that much cash by releasing or trading him in the final season of his four-year deal.
For a player in the position of Smith, it may have made financial sense to attempt to play through an injury, avoiding a season-ending surgery, with an uncertain future ahead. I’m certain many fans will wonder why a summer back injury would take until late September to receive surgical attention, and his contract situation could very well be the answer to the question.
In Smith’s absence, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary have started in his place at outside linebacker with Jonathan Garvin and August-waiver-claim Chauncey Rivers rotating in off the bench. LaDarius Hamilton, another outside linebacker, was picked up off of Tampa Bay’s practice squad the day Smith was placed on IR but has not been activated for a game. Randy Ramsey, who likely would have made the Packers’ opening day roster as a rotational pass-rusher, was also placed on IR in August for an ankle injury.