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Packers OLB Grades: Za’Darius Smith posts another 10+ sack season as Preston regresses

Trying to replicate an amazing first season together, the Smith Bros saw opposite degrees of success in 2020.

Tennessee Titans v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Over two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2020 season. Today, we examine the outside linebackers.

During the 2019 season, the Green Bay Packers’ defense saw a surge in quarterback pressures that stemmed from the free agent acquisitions of Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith. The Smith Bros combined for 60 quarterback hits, 25.5 sacks, and 28 tackles for loss to help lead the team to a rather surprising NFC Championship Game appearance. Looking ahead to 2020, there was not much concern about the Smiths duplicating their efforts, but all eyes were fixed on Rashan Gary and what the former first-round pick could do in his second season.

While Gary began to emerge as a sophomore Packer, Preston Smith took a step back in production. And although his counterpart, Za’Darius was able to tally another double-digit sack season, Preston’s struggles led to mixed results for the outside linebackers unit as a whole.

Starters

Za’Darius Smith

16 games
52 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss
12.5 sacks, 23 QB hits, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries

Given an eyebrow-raising contract two years ago, Smith has more than justified his salary over his first two seasons in Green Bay. While his total quarterback hits declined a bit in 2020 (down to 23 from 37 in 2019), he nearly matched his sack output and made a more significant impact in terms of forced fumbles. Smith’s four created turnovers in that area not only set a career-high (previously was one), but tied for third across the NFL.

The Kentucky product was another reliable on-field performer, playing and starting in all 16 games while seeing action on 83% of the team’s defensive snaps. Smith’s best game of the season came in Week 4 against Atlanta, when he posted three sacks, four tackles for loss, and five quarterback hits in a 30-16 Packers win. But outside of 1.5 sacks against Philadelphia, Smith would not register another multi-sack single game and he went somewhat quiet in the team’s three postseason games, particularly in a game that needed his presence most against Tampa Bay.

Smith remains one of the team’s defensive leaders and difference makers heading into 2021. His level of effort against both the run and pass seemed to rise, along with Preston Smith’s, after a meeting with Mike Pettine in the second half of the 2020 season, and it poses a question of just how much of an impact the defensive scheme had on the duo both mentally and in terms of disruption. While Za’Darius had another quality season for Green Bay, the Packers would like to see a little more pressure in crucial situations.

Preston Smith

16 games
42 total tackles, seven tackles for loss
Four sacks, 11 QB hits, one fumble recovery, one touchdown

Simply put, Smith’s performance in 2020 was not up to the standard expected by both the Packers and Preston himself. After creating havoc with 12 sacks in 2019, Smith’s total drooped to four in 2020, showing some of the year-to-year inconsistency that also appeared in Washington. Early on, Smith’s struggles in run support were the most apparent. Routinely, he was seen over-pursuing in that area, leaving the edge susceptible to long gains and lacking some of the physicality fans were previously accustomed to.

Halfway through the season, both Matt LaFleur and Pettine felt that Preston’s effort in practice was not translating to the field and perhaps he was pressing too much from the statistical drop. But Smith seemed to respond with overall energy and back-to-back games with sacks in Weeks 12 and 13. Still, despite playing in all 16 games and 79% of the defensive snaps, Smith saw a decline in pressure stats with four sacks and 11 quarterback hits (down from 23).

With Smith penciled in for a $16 million cap hit in 2021, the Packers will have a decision to make on retaining his services, especially with a promising year from Gary. It is hard to release proven pass rushers and Smith still fits that description despite a down year. The Packers have been searching for a long time for players of his caliber, size, and athleticism. If the team feels Smith can bounce back, a restructured contract would benefit the team as it looks to keep its core pass rushers for another hopeful postseason run.

Backups

Rashan Gary

15 games
35 total tackles, five tackles for loss
Five sacks, 11 QB hits, one fumble recovery

The Packers have had their share of first-round disappointments over the years, in addition to failed experiments with moving players from their college positions to new ones in the pros. After year one in Green Bay, another such scare presented itself with Gary after just two sacks in 16 games. However, a promising summer heightened the hype and expectations for the athletic Gary once again coming into year two.

The former Michigan Wolverine got off to a solid start, racking up four quarterback hits over the first two games, including a 1.5-sack performance and a near-sack that resulted in a pick-six against Detroit in Week 2. But after getting one of his four starts in Week 3, Gary suffered an ankle injury and was not a heavy snap participant again until Week 7. Until the rest of the season, Gary’s snap count ranged anywhere from 28% to 65%, but his production began to grow. According to Pro Football Focus, Gary’s pressure percentage of 18.7% was the highest of any pass rusher in the league from Week 10 to the end of the season. Against Los Angeles in the playoffs, Gary played his highest snap total of the season (67%) and came away with three quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks.

With a similar frequency of snaps in 2021, it is reasonable to believe Gary will continue to deliver as part of a blossoming 2020 draft class. As a second-year player, he showed plenty of physicality as an edge-setter against the run, using his hands to rip through blockers with more success like he did as a college defensive lineman. Gary may never win repeatedly with speed moves on the edges as a pass rusher, but he was able to do that at a higher rate in 2020 and shows some quickness to beat interior blocks when attacking from the middle like Za’Darius. He only had five sacks to his name this past season, but Gary’s impact and relentless energy was felt beyond that number.

Jonathan Garvin

8 games
Five total tackles

Thought to be a potential steal when the Packers selected him in the seventh round, Garvin had a very underwhelming first season in Green Bay. The rookie tallied just five tackles and did not appear in a game after Week 9, being left inactive for the remainder of the regular season and postseason. On top of only 85 defensive snaps, Garvin was on the field for just 22 total special teams snaps, making him far from a true rookie factor. Looking forward to 2021, the only positives for Garvin are his age (still just 21 years old) and a full year of pro experience. But even that experience will now have to carry over to a new defensive coordinator’s system. Garvin was a high-ceiling, low-floor type of player coming out of college and has a long way to go in making a consistent NFL impact.

Randy Ramsey

12 games
11 total tackles

As Garvin’s snap count disappeared halfway through the season, Ramsey saw an uptick and appeared in every game from Week 9 on. Ramsey’s appearances were much more of the special teams variety (204 special teams snaps to 75 defensive), but the practice squad holdover filled the team’s fourth edge linebacker role after recovering from a groin injury that kept him out the first three weeks of the season. The Packers clearly saw enough of Ramsey the past two years to keep him around on the active roster as a developmental player, but he did not provide meaningful pass-rushing contributions in his first true season. Certainly, his spot on the team’s roster in 2021 is far from set in stone.


Overall Grade: B-

On the periphery, the Packers’ outside linebackers were more than sufficient and the team produced 41 sacks for a consecutive season largely due to this group. But numbers do not tell the story of the team’s routine struggle to generate consistent pass rush until the fourth quarter. While some of the blame goes to Pettine for not dialing up more pressure until late in the game, some of it also falls on players like the Smiths whose energy tended to wane in less critical times.

Yet, the talk of the offseason will be about Preston Smith and his contract. This is rightfully so. His production was the difference in this year’s B- grade and the A grade the unit received a year ago. Another productive season from Za’Darius Smith and the emergence of Gary helped propel the unit to another “good” season, but more help behind them is probably required in 2021, regardless of Preston’s status.