The Packers announced they were releasing OLB Za’Darius Smith on Monday after three seasons in Green Bay. The move saved the Packers more than $15.2 million in cap space this season as they try to get under the NFL salary cap before the start of the new league year this Wednesday afternoon.
The move was not a surprise from a cap perspective. Everybody knew that at least one of the “Smith Brothers” would be let go and it was less expensive to re-sign Preston Smith and they would save more money by releasing Za’Darius.
But while the move makes sense on paper, it will also be a loss for the Packers organization. In his time with the Packers, Za’Darius Smith made some big contributions to the organization both on and off the field.
Za’Darius signed with Green Bay as a free agent before the 2019 season. Upon his arrival, he immediately helped change the atmosphere in the Packers locker room, not just for the defense, but for the entire team. It was impressive that he was named a defensive captain in his very first year with the Packers.
In 2019, Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine saw the immediate impact Smith had on the locker room. “It’s as real as it gets. It’s instant respect. One of the reasons he is as respected as he is, just watch him practice,” Pettine told the Packers official Web site. “He and Adrian [Amos] are probably two of the best practice players I’ve been around. That’s a credit to them, where they were before. Great habits, they’re going full speed, they finish plays. They don’t take plays off. You don’t see them loafing on the back side or anything like that. The players can sense the leadership piece pretty quickly. For him to be elected captain as a first-year guy here speaks to the quality of his leadership.”
On the field, Za’Darius’ impact was felt right away as well. The Packers pass rush was lacking in 2018 with only Kyler Fackrell recording more than six sacks that season. But Za’Darius changed that in a hurry. In his first six games with the Pack, Za’Darius recorded six sacks.
His best game came in the Packers 23-10 Week 16 win over the Vikings on Monday Night Football. The victory clinched the NFC North Division title for the Packers and it wouldn’t have been possible without Za’Darius Smith’s outstanding play. In the game, Z had 3.5 sacks, seven total tackles, five quarterback hits and five tackles for loss.
By the end of his first season in Green Bay, Za’Darius Smith had a career-high 13.5 sacks, 55 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 37 quarterback hits according to pro-football-reference.com. He also earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time in his career.
In addition to his leadership, Za’Darius Smith helped make things fun for the fans again. His celebrations after sacks were memorable and a little unpredictable. He often wrote messages on the shirts under his jersey and revealed them after a sack, whether it supported the mother of an ill fan, his own Pro Bowl snub or something more topical, you never knew what would happen next.
In 2020, Za’Darius was a little less dynamic and consistent, but was still playing at a very high level. He recorded 12.5 sacks, made 52 total tackles and had 23 quarterback hits. He made the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive year.
Unfortunately, 2021 was largely a lost year for Za’Darius Smith. He suffered a back injury in training camp, tried to play in the season opener but was limited to 18 snaps as a situational pass rusher. He was then placed on injured reserve and didn’t return until the Packers playoff game against San Francisco. In that game, Z registered a sack on the 49ers first possession which set the tone for the defense’s strong performance that evening. Unfortunately, it would be Za’Darius Smith’s final game with the Packers.
Now, Za’Darius Smith is a free agent. He will turn 30 in early September and must prove he is fully recovered from his back injury and that it won’t become a chronic issue.
Some team will likely take a chance on Z, and if he is healthy, he will likely be a solid contributor to his new team. Za’Darius Smith was a Packer for only three years and only healthy for two of those seasons. But he made two Pro Bowls, provided leadership and changed the culture in the Packers locker room.
Before the 2020 NFL Combine, head coach Matt LaFleur had this to say about Za’Darius and it pretty much summed up his time in Green Bay. “He was obviously extremely disruptive and very productive,” LaFleur explained. “But I also think it’s just the leadership qualities that he brought to our defense and to our football team. He did a great job of getting our guys together. I felt like we were a very well-connected team, and I think those are the teams that ultimately have the most success. He was a big part of that.”
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