Quickly, the Green Bay Packers’ season opener against the Minnesota Vikings has become more than just a divisional game. It’s a meeting of scorned lovers: the Packers and former pass-rusher Za’Darius Smith, now a member of the Vikings.
Cap mechanics. A bedazzled pendant. A team captain vote. Many factors play into how Smith, a former All-Pro in Green Bay, suddenly developed into the team’s biggest enemy. It’s impossible to explain without taking you through the road that got us here, so let’s take a look at the timeline of Smith and the Packers’ relationship over the last year-and-a-half to see what soured their bond.
March 10th, 2021
In a since-deleted tweet, Smith tweeted, “I want to be a Packer for life.” This was at a time in which many assumed that Smith had played himself into a contract extension, as he was approaching the final two seasons of his four-year contract. Many of Smith’s social media posts from his time in Green Bay have since been removed.
March 14th, 2021
According to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the expectation was that Smith and the Packers would “complete an extension” over “the next day or two” that would free up enough cap space for Green Bay to sign running back Aaron Jones to a multi-year contract.
March 17th, 2021
Smith’s contract is restructured, not extended. Instead of adding years and new money to his current deal, the Packers elected to move around the cap hits in Smith’s contract to free up the cap space to sign Jones. According to Field Yates of ESPN, Smith’s $5 million roster bonus and $9.76 million of his base salary were turned into a signing bonus that created $7.38 million in cap relief for the Packers without giving Smith an extra dime.
At that point, Smith’s 2022 cap hit was set to be $27.7 million in the final year of his four-year contract. With a cap hit that high, it was highly likely that the Packers were going to release him after the 2021 season, no matter how well he played that year.
May 24th, 2021
According to a video from defensive lineman Kenny Clark’s Instagram via Fox6’s Lily Zhao, Smith reports to the Packers’ organized team activities, which were optional. Smith may have been mad about his contract situation at this point, but he wasn’t letting it impact his attendance.
May 25th, 2021
One day after reporting to the Packers’ OTAs, Smith changes representation to Samantha Sankovich and Dan Saffron of Steinberg Sports, who report the change themselves on social media. This is where the ball started to get rolling on his discontent with how Green Bay chose to handle his cap hits and his lack of an extension.
July 24th, 2021
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported that Smith was “less-than-happy” in a sourced up post.
As one league source explained it to PFT, Smith is believed to be unhappy about the team exercising the automatic conversion option in his contract, converting a large chunk of 2021 salary to a guaranteed payment and, in turn, pushing his 2022 cap number north of $28 million. He knows that, come next year, the magnitude of the cap charge for keeping him around means he’ll likely be cut or traded.
Smith, per the source, didn’t realize the import of the automatic conversion language. Also, he’s believed to be not happy that the Packers didn’t pay out the 2021 guarantee ($14.76 million) in March. By letter of the agreement, the Packers will make the payments in weekly chunks during the season, resulting in Smith getting no net benefit from the move. Instead, the restructuring hurts him because it makes his cap number in 2022 too high for the team to carry.
At this point, it’s important to remind the reader that players have no say in if teams convert their salary into a signing bonus or not. Because the players are getting paid the same amount of money within the same timeframe that they would have if their money was in game-by-game salary instead of a signing bonus, these accounting moves typically fall in the hands of just the team’s front office.. Smith never had to agree to a bloated 2022 cap hit, because the Packers had the mechanics to move around cap hits without his permission.
July 27th, 2021
Smith starts training camp on the NFL’s non-football injury list for a back injury that general manager Brian Gutekunst calls “short-term.” On the same day, Smith’s new representation solidified a change in language that allowed him to see $5 million of the salary the Packers converted into a signing bonus on a more accelerated schedule than what they originally planned for, per Florio.
August 12th-September 1st, 2021
On August 12th, Smith worked outside with the rehab group for the first time since he was placed on the NFI list with his back injury. On the 16th, he put on his helmet for the first time in practice and was activated off of the NFI list. On the 22nd, head coach Matt LaFleur stated that the team is “going to be smart with him” and Gutekunst stated that Smith’s back “flared up” after his return to the field the week prior. On September 1st, Smith was pulled out of practice again.
September 6th, 2021
Smith returned to practice on the Monday of the Packers’ season-opener against the New Orleans Saints, giving hope to him playing in Week 1.
September 9th, 2021
"G" on the helmet & "C" on their chest.— Green Bay Packers (@packers) September 9, 2021
2️⃣0️⃣2️⃣1️⃣ #Packers captains:@AaronRodgers12@tae15adams@MarcedesLewis89 @JaireAlexander@KCBoutThatLife @_SmashAmos31 @crosbykicks2 #GoPackGo pic.twitter.com/MQijBwwtFn
Despite being named the sole defensive captain for the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Smith was not named one of the three (Clark, Adrian Amos and Jaire Alexander) defensive captains for the 2021 team. These captains were voted on by the Packers’ players, not the coaching staff.
September 10th, 2021
Smith was pulled out of practice again on the Friday leading up to the team’s season opener. After practice, LaFleur claims that Smith is “still a captain” of the team, despite not being named one by the Packers officially.
September 12th, 2021
In somewhat of a surprise, Smith, who had practiced all of once in training camp, was activated for Week 1 and played against the Saints. Preston Smith and Rashan Gary got the starts at outside linebacker for the team, but Smith was on the field for 18 of the defense’s 62 plays overall, mostly on third down or subpackage situations. To put it simply, though, he did not look like himself and struggled to generate the type of pass-rush that made him a Pro Bowl talent the year before. The Packers lost 38-10 in Jacksonville, as Hurricane Ida temporarily displaced the Saints from playing in the Superdome.
September 14th, 2021
Za’Darius Smith is getting a Captain chain pic.twitter.com/6MfC150g6y— IKE Packers Podcast (@IKE_Packers) September 14, 2021
On the Tuesday after the Packers’ opener, Smith posted on Instagram that he was going to have a diamond pendant of an NFL captain’s patch commissioned. This came less than a week after he wasn’t voted a defensive captain by his peers for the first time in his three years with the team.
Za'Darius Smith did end up getting that captain C jewelry made. It glows in the dark! pic.twitter.com/Zo2qubB3VD— Jon Meerdink (@JonMeerdink) September 7, 2022
If you’re wondering if Smith ever had the pendant made, the answer is yes! The border on the C and the stars on the pendant also apparently glow in the dark. Shoutout to Acme Packing Company’s own Jon Meerdink for tracking the answer down.
September 16th, 2021
At this point, it seems like Smith, who had been posting on social media about his return throughout Week 1 despite missing practices, convinced the coaching staff that he was healthy enough to play against the Saints when he really wasn’t, based on his limited snap counts and limited play when on the field. LaFleur addressed this in his press conference on Thursday of Week 2 by stating, “We’re not going to play [Smith] as much as we’d like to until we know that he’s healthy enough to [string together practices.] Until he can practice on a daily basis, it’s hard to say that he’s 100 percent.”
Early on in the presser, LaFleur was asked if Smith will practice, which led to the head coach letting the media know that Smith was ruled out for the day’s work. When asked if it was Smith’s back injury that placed him on the NFI list that kept him out of practice that Thursday, LaFleur said, “It has everything to do with the back.”
September 17th, 2021
The very next day, Smith was placed on the injured reserve with a designation to return. Smith’s injured reserve stint was originally reported as a short-term IR stint, which left the door open to him returning to the team as quickly as in three weeks. LaFleur would say later that Friday that Smith was “shutting down for a while.”
Late September, 2021
NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported in October that Smith had back surgery in late September, though the date was never specified. At the time of the reporting, Garafolo tweeted, “The hope is it’s not a season-ending situation.”
January 1st, 2022
From @gmfb Weekend: #Packers LB Za’Darius Smith is back with the team after being away for a while during his rehab. The team hopes he’s one of several key players back and ready to roll for the playoffs. pic.twitter.com/vxbnC5FKJr— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) January 1, 2022
Little was heard from Smith for an extended period of time. On New Year’s Day, Garafolo reported that Smith recently returned to the facility after stints of rehabbing on his own, which created issues with Smith’s unvaccinated status. Because Smith was unvaccinated, leaving the Packers’ facility restarted a five-day clock in which Smith was barred from reentering Green Bay’s complexes. Upon his most recent return to the team, Smith was vaccinated, which sped up his ability to rehab with the Packers.
January 12th, 2022
About two weeks after Smith’s final return to the team, he practiced with the Packers for the first time since Week 1 of the regular season. This started a 21-day practice window in which Smith could practice with the team without being activated off of the injured reserve list.
January 21st, 2022
On the day before the Packers’ divisional round postseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers, Smith was officially activated by Green Bay, allowing him to play in the playoffs.
January 22nd, 2022
Just as in Week 1, Preston Smith and Gary got the starting nods at the outside linebacker positions while Za’Darius Smith played off the bench for 19 of the team’s 54 defensive snaps. The Packers lost their only playoff game by a score of 13-10.
March 14th, 2022
The Green Bay Packers did what everyone expected them to do the moment they restructured Smith’s cap hits: release him before the 2022 free agency period. The team saved nearly $16 million in cap space immediately by letting him walk after bloating the cap hit of the final year of his contract.
March 16th, 2022
Two days after his release, it was reported that Smith signed with the Baltimore Ravens, the team he had played for before the Packers...
March 22nd, 2022
...but a change of heart led him to the in-division Minnesota Vikings, where he would work with former Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who took the assistant head coaching job for the team. In just over a week, Smith was a Packer, Raven and Viking.
Well, this was just posted on Za’Darius Smith’s Instagram. Potential NFC North landing? pic.twitter.com/Ub7eDCP01f— MK Burgess (@MK_Burgess) March 21, 2022
September 7th, 2022
Since Smith’s signing with the Vikings, little has been said between the Packers organization or Smith on the topic. That was until Wednesday when Tyler Dunne of Go Long wrote a feature on Smith, who had some choice words to say about his final year in Green Bay.
Smith stated that he was treated poorly by the team after his injury and that the Packers attempted to rush him onto the field. That goes against what LaFleur stated in his press conferences after Week 1, when said that Smith would not return to games until he could string multiple practices together. Smith also claimed that the reason he backed off Baltimore’s deal this offseason to join Minnesota was “to play [Green Bay] twice a year.”
In response, LaFleur stated on Wednesday in his pre-practice presser, “I respect the crap out of Z as a player. He busted his butt and did a lot of great things. I think we may have a different perspective of how things transpired.”