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The case against keeping Preston Smith in 2021

A formerly solid player had a terrible 2020, and yet he may remain on the team in 2021?

Carolina Panthers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

During his media availability yesterday, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst mentioned that the team was interested in keeping Preston Smith around. Whether this is actually true or not is unknown, but it certainly threw Packers Twitter into quite the tizzy. After starting out as largely a mocking exercise, by the end of the night I found many defending the idea of retaining Smith, which I found quite perplexing.

Twelve hours earlier it was widely accepted that cutting Smith was not only inevitable, but also correct. Do we really believe that an NFL team wouldn’t do something inadvisable when they have provided us with so much data to the contrary over the years? Green Bay is far from one of the dumbest organizations, but they have made some questionable roster management decisions under Brian Gutekunst already, and I fear this might be another.

Once upon a time I was a fan of Preston Smith. His athletic measurables match those of productive pass rushers on the edge. His play in Washington during his rookie contract was solid, if unspectacular. When the Packers had fallen into barren times at EDGE and needed an upgrade in the spring of 2019, I found Preston Smith to be a desirable target. I was pleasantly surprised when the Packers added him along with Za’Darius Smith that March.

He then posted a solid 2019, albeit overshadowed by the breakout of his free agent counterpart and fellow Smith. Preston was a productive pass rusher, ranking 13th among linebackers with at least 100 pass rushing snaps in pressure rate (14.4%), per Sports Info Solutions. His run defense and pass coverage were not great, and remain not great, but the primary issue is that he went from a legitimate plus as a pass rusher into an absolute disaster.

The only linebacker with a worse pressure rate than Smith last year was Trent Murphy.

2020 was of course a weird year and a bit of a weird season, but the NFL was the one sport where I don’t think it was really all that weird. Major League Baseball had an abrupt start and stop and start again. Their season was discombobulated with doubleheaders and an extremely short season, and they were the real guinea pig for the other sports leagues. The NBA played in a bubble with no fans and saw a jump-shooting explosion through some combination of lack of travel and lack of fan distraction. The NFL season wasn’t normal, obviously, but it was less impacted than the other two sports. Its schedule remained largely the same, excusing the occasional weird Tuesday game. The Packers had no games moved by COVID-19. The biggest difference for the Packers was a lack of crowd noise, which was felt across the league as offense increased.

Perhaps that last part impacted Preston Smith disproportionately. Smith has always had a reputation of being a snap jumper. A lack of crowd noise impacts the defense, particularly at home, since the road team’s offensive line can now actually hear their quarterback’s cadence. This may have hurt Smith, but it’s hard to believe that it would cut his pressure rate in half.

Aside from Smith’s drop in performance, his contract is the real issue here. The Packers are still over the salary cap, regardless of where that number ultimately ends up being, and one of the best ways to get below it is to cut Preston Smith loose. Doing so would leave the Packers with an $8 million dead cap hit, but would also save them $8 million. As far as cuttable players go, no one creates more space than Smith does. Green Bay has other options to get below the cap, primarily via re-structures and extensions, but if Green Bay is to do much of anything bringing in external talent, it involves either letting Smith go or getting him to take a pay cut.

Rashan Gary’s 2020 breakout is another reason to let Smith go. Yes, Green Bay will likely need a third EDGE, as both Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary can also rush inside on passing downs. But it is unlikely that Green Bay can afford to add at a position of great need, such as boundary corner, and keep Preston’s number on the cap sheet as is. (Technically they CAN do it, but the gymnastics to get there create their own problems in 2022.)

There is a historical example of something quite similar to this in the Gutekunst era: Jimmy Graham in 2019. Green Bay could have avoided paying out his $5 million roster bonus in addition to his salary and per-game roster bonuses, creating extra cap room for themselves all while losing a player who was clearly not living up to his contract. The pain would have been manageable on that cut as well. Despite this, Green Bay brought Graham back, and the Matt LaFleur offense didn’t magically fix Graham because he didn’t fit in the system. Graham then swindled the Bears in the 2020 off-season and was yet again an ineffective player.

While Preston Smith may not have reached the levels of washed that Jimmy Graham had, it’s also possible that he has. His decline in 2020 was precipitous and the eye test matched the numbers. He was a completely ineffective pass rusher, got frequently targeted in coverage, and was routinely moved in the run game. His 2021 might be better. I’d probably bet on it being better, but if Smith were a free agent this off-season, he would not be getting a contract that would hit $16M on his team’s cap. If Green Bay can get Smith to take a large pay cut to stay, a la Lane Taylor last summer, then keeping Smith is fine, but Green Bay cannot have Preston Smith eating up close to 9% of the team’s cap.

Is Preston Smith worth $8 million in 2021? Could Green Bay do something more productive with those dollars? In a year where each and every dollar has heightened value, I would think that the Packers could make more use of it than an EDGE3 coming off a career-worst season.