GREEN BAY — Za’Darius and Preston Smith are not brothers. And while they’ve known each other since college, they’re not really even friends — at least, not yet.
“I don’t have his number,” Preston admitted when asked if they’d exchanged congratulatory texts after the two outside linebackers signed lucrative free agent deals with the Green Bay Packers last week.
But if the two Smiths manage to revitalize the Packers’ downtrodden edge rush together this season, their friendship surely will grow — and they might become defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s BFFs.
With the team having already cut ties with oft-injured longtime starter Nick Perry and with franchise all-time sack leader Clay Matthews expected to depart in unrestricted free agency, the Packers obviously are counting on the Smiths — combined contracts: $118 million, including $36 million in guaranteed up-front signing bonus money — to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks and deliver more sacks than their two former first-round picks managed together last year (five).
Last season, Za’Darius had 8.5 sacks for Baltimore, while Preston had four for Washington — though he did have eight sacks in 2015 as a rookie and again in 2017.
Although Pettine’s defense did finish last season tied for eighth in the 32-team league with 44 sacks, they didn’t consistently create pressure. Pettine believes turnovers often result from getting after the quarterback — whether that’s in the form of a strip/sack or by affecting the throw, leading to interceptions — and the Packers intercepted only seven passes last season, tied for 29th in the league. Only San Francisco (two) had fewer.
While sack leader Kyler Fackrell (10.5 sacks) returns and a rookie from an unusually deep draft class of edge rushers figures to be part of the pass-rush rotation as well, the investment the Packers have made in the Smiths makes them the presumptive starters. And given both players’ versatility — they both can shift inside, either as interior down linemen or inside linebackers in obvious passing situations — Pettine should be able to use them in a number of different ways.
“I think in Mike’s defense, if you can have guys on either side that are interchangeable that can do a variety of things and be versatile, it really makes it tough for the opponent. And both of these guys can do that,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said.
“Za’Darius certainly can line up outside and rush with speed and power from the outside. But he’s also down a lot of 3-tech (defensive tackle) work. Preston is an exceptional athlete that can do a lot of different things, on the edge and inside as well. It’s shaping up and we’ll see how it goes, how Mike wants to use these guys. But I think the versatility is really going to help us along the front.”
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Upon arriving at Lambeau Field on Thursday for their introductions to the media, Za’Darius and Preston spent some time talking about their joint quest, and thinking back to how many times their paths had crossed before. (Presumably, they also exchanged numbers.)
“When I first met him, I was in junior college at East Mississippi (Community College, in Scooba, Miss.) and he was at Mississippi State. Mississippi State was like an hour away from East Mississippi. I took a (recruiting) visit there, and that was the first time I ever met him,” recounted Za’Darius, who ended up at Kentucky, where he faced Preston in SEC conference play.
They met again at the Senior Bowl in 2015, then were together again at the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
“He’s a Smith and I’m a Smith, so we were right behind each other (during drills),” Za’Darius continued. “One thing he did tell me — he was like, ‘Z, we’re going to do great things in this league.’ I kid you not. And now, we’re playing together.”
When they saw each other at Lambeau, they spent time talking about how far they’d come, and what their new contracts would provide for their families (each has a 5-year-old daughter).
“And finally living out our dream and being on a team together,” Preston said. “And, we talked about how we can’t wait to get on the field together and make some things happen.
“I like his play style, and I feel we will complement each other and we’re going to do some great things here in Green Bay.”
But despite their connection, Za’Darius said the pair will compete with one another, too.
“A lot of competition, bro,” Za’Darius said. “I can tell you that Preston is a great football player, and I look forward to playing with him. One thing we’re going to do each and every day is compete, so that’s just going to make me better and him better also.
“I’m going to do what I can do. Coaches know what I’m capable of doing, so I’m going to continue to work hard, stay after practice, do the little things right. What I’m bringing to this team is leadership, accountability. I’m going to do the right thing and I’m going to continue to put up numbers, hopefully.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9-11 on “Wilde & Tausch” on your local ESPN station.