When the Green Bay Packers signed free agent edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith before the 2019 season, they changed the talent level on the defense and the atmosphere in the locker room.
But with the Packers still over the salary cap limit and the new league year starting in less than a week, GM Brian Gutekunst is facing some difficult decisions. The Packers restructured the contracts of both Preston and Za’Darius Smith last offseason and both now carry ridiculously high cap numbers for 2022.
The odds are the Packers can keep only one of the two Smith Brothers in 2022, but which one should they prioritize?
Za’Darius Smith is the better pure pass rusher of the duo. In 2019, he had a career-high 13.5 sacks, 37 quarterback hits and 55 total tackles. Za’Darius also earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time in his career that season and quickly became a leader on defense.
In 2020, while Za’Darius was a bit less consistent, his numbers were still strong. He added 12.5 sacks, 23 quarterback hits and 52 total tackles. Za’Darius earned Pro Bowl honors for the second consecutive season.
Unfortunately, 2021 was largely a lost season for the former Kentucky star. He dealt with a back injury throughout training camp but managed to play a part-time role in the season opener against the Saints. Unfortunately, the bad back kept him out of the lineup for the rest of the regular season. Za’Darius managed to return for the playoff game against the 49ers and he did have a sack early on, but only played 19 snaps in the game.
Za’Darius will turn 30 in September and presently carries a cap hit of more than $27.6 million if the Packers keep him on the roster under his present deal in 2022. Cutting him will save the Packers roughly $15.2 million but they will also take a dead cap hit of $12.3 million.
Preston Smith is not as consistent a pass rusher as Za’Darius although he is a quality NFL edge rusher. The former Mississippi State star had 12 sacks and 23 quarterback hits in his first season with the Packers but fell off in 2020 to just four sacks and 11 hits in an inconsistent season.
After the 2020 campaign, the Packers restructured Preston’s contract and made him take a pay cut to remain with the team. He agreed and had a bounce back season in 2021, recording nine sacks and 17 quarterback hits while forcing two fumbles and recovering two more.
Throughout his career, Preston Smith has enjoyed better seasons in odd numbered years while struggling in even numbered seasons. However, he has always remained healthy and has played in 16 games in each of his first seven NFL seasons.
He will turn 30 in November and presently carries a cap hit of $19.7 million. The Packers could roughly $12.4 million by letting him go but he would carry a dead cap hit of $7.25 million.
Because the Packers are so far over the cap right now, it is highly unlikely they can afford to bring back both Preston and Za’Darius Smith in 2022. The likely outcome is that they will extend and/or restructure one of the two Smiths to start opposite Rashan Gary and release the other.
The choice is not an easy one for Gutekunst. The Packers can likely save more money by letting Za’Darius Smith go, but Za’Darius is the more consistent pass rusher and the more dynamic personality in the locker room. His health issues are also a concern as a bad back is a tricky thing that may be an issue for the rest of his football career and beyond.
Preston Smith would cost less and the Packers would save less cap space by releasing him. He is also less dangerous as a pass rusher and less consistent as a player. But, after seven NFL seasons, he’s the healthier of the two players and one of the most important abilities in the NFL is availability.
Gutekunst will have to make his decision soon. The new league year starts March 16th at 4:00 PM ET and the Packers must be under the salary cap by that time.
The most likely scenario is that the Packers find a way to keep Preston Smith while parting ways with Za’Darius Smith. But ultimately, the decision rests with Gutekunst, the two Smith Brothers and their agents.
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