Kyler Fackrell. Reggie Gilbert. Kendall Donnerson.
Those are the three outside linebackers who are likely to be on the Green Bay Packers’ 90-man roster when free agency begins on March 13th. Clay Matthews is scheduled to be a free agent, and Nick Perry would seem to be a legitimate candidate to be released, likely with a post-June 1st designation. That leaves the aforementioned trio holding down the fort.
It goes without saying that the Packers will not and cannot enter training camp in 2019 with those three players making up the entire depth chart at the position. Some combination of draft picks and free agents — both veterans and undrafted rookies — will bolster the unit, providing additional depth and playmaking ability.
Based on what will likely be available on the open market and when the Packers are on the clock in the 2019 NFL Draft, the team needs to make a serious run at signing former Washington linebacker Preston Smith.
Smith was a second-round draft pick in 2015 out of Mississippi State, and he’s a perfect size for a large edge rusher at 6-foot-5 and around 260-265 pounds. He has not missed a game in his career, and has started each contest over the last three campaigns.
As a rookie, Smith played just under 50% of Washington’s defensive snaps, rotating in and out of the lineup with Trent Murphy. In that time, however, he recorded an impressive eight sacks, including three forced fumbles. His sack total dipped to 4.5 in his second year, despite an uptick in playing time to 70%, but his QB hit total and tackle totals both increased. His most productive season as a pass-rusher was in 2017, when he recorded eight sacks again and registered 21 hits before seeing those numbers drop a bit to four and 16 last season.
Those numbers won’t leap off the page like the double-digit sack seasons posted by players like Dee Ford, but they certainly suggest that Smith can continue improving. His age — he will turn 27 in November — suggests the same.
After a flurry of aggressive moves last offseason, how about padding out Mike Pettine’s defense with one of free agency’s hidden -- or not-so-hidden -- gems? The uber-consistent Smith spent last season as football’s eighth-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, per Pro Football Focus. With edge rusher arguably Green Bay’s greatest need, Smith deserves a long look.
As always, take PFF ratings with a grain of salt. Still, this indicates that he is an excellent all-around player, able to hold up against the run equally as well as he rushes the passer. This is of course critical for a Packers defense that finished 23rd in rushing DVOA and was particularly gashed on the edges, finishing 31st or 32nd on DVOA for runs outside the tackles.
Finally, Smith has played primarily on the left side of the defense in Washington. This is notable since Kyler Fackrell lined up mostly on the right side. It is not uncommon for pass-rushers to switch sides, but it’s worth noting that neither player would have to move to a different spot in the starting lineup compared to what they’re used to.
Smith’s asking price
As always, price is a consideration. The Packers currently have an estimated $35 million in salary cap space, per Over the Cap’s estimates. Cutting Perry as a post-June 1st release won’t free up any more room for the spring, but it would add nearly $11 million to the team’s cap room in June; therefore, the Packers could feasibly use up a big chunk of that $35 million in free agency before using the extra cap space freed up by releasing Perry to help sign the rookie draft class and give the team more wiggle room heading into the summer. In addition, a possible release of Tramon Williams would give the team another $4.75 million to play with, bringing their total space on March 13th to about $40M.
Therefore, the Packers could reasonably use $25 million of that $40 million for free agents, leaving $15 million left over with another $11 million coming free in June. Say they re-sign Bashaud Breeland and land the big fish in the safety pond, Earl Thomas, with cap hits around $5 million and $10 million for the first year of their deals, respectively. That still leaves another $10 million to play with — and that should be a good number for Smith.
Spotrac estimates his reasonable market value this year at about $11 million per year. Interestingly, they used Nick Perry’s 2017 contract as one of the comparisons, and Smith compares favorably to Perry in most of the comparisons Spotrac uses. Perry’s deal was worth $11.8 million per season for five years; Smith could very well come in right around that mark.
Furthermore, there is far less reason to worry about Smith’s availability than there is and was for Perry, who has dealt with numerous minor and major injuries. He has never played all 16 games in a single season, and has missed at least four games in four of his seven years in the league. Smith has never sat out a single game as a pro.
In essence, the Packers could free up all the cap space they need to sign Smith by cutting Perry, and they would get a more reliable, available player for about the same price in 2019.
What about draft picks?
Sure, the Packers should have a set of talented edge rushers to choose from when the 12th pick rolls around. Between Clelin Ferrell, Jachai Polite, Brian Burns, and Montez Sweat, there should be options there. However, bringing in Smith should not preclude the Packers double-dipping by selecting one of these prospects early on; in fact, doing so would allow that player to take some time developing before being asked to take over as a starter.
Furthermore, if the Packers were to draft a player like Polite or Burns, that rookie may need to work into the lineup gradually as a situational pass-rusher before being able to hold up as an every-down player. Smith’s ability to defend the run would be invaluable in that case, allowing the team to work a rookie in gradually before becoming an every-down player in 2020, when Fackrell is scheduled to become a free agent.
All told, Smith looks to be an excellent combination of value, reliability, and fit for the Packers, and though he will surely demand substantial money, signing him should not require a truly massive contract. That should make him one of the most tantalizing options for the Packers among this year’s free agent pass-rushers.