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Happy to have Za’Darius Smith back in town, Packers temper expectations for star edge rusher’s comeback

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Za'Darius Smith has played only 18 snaps this season, all in the opener against the Saints.

GREEN BAY — Za’Darius Smith was, indeed, back in town on Monday, just as the Green Bay Packers two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker had said he was on Twitter late last week.

But when — or if — Smith, who had a team-leading 26 sacks in 2019 and 2020 but has been on injured reserve with a back injury since playing 18 snaps in the team’s season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints, could return to the field remains unclear.

The Packers were just happy to see him again.

“It was great to see him back in the building. He had a big smile on his face,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said after Monday’s practice, which Smith spent chatting with LaFleur and others while not participating. “He seems like he’s in a pretty good frame of mind. I think that’s more of a week-by-week case. But we’ll see where he’s at. He hasn’t even really done a whole lot of rehab with our guys yet.

Smith hasn’t been around the team while on injured reserve, and because he hasn’t spoken with reporters, no one has been able to ask him where he’s been or what his rehabilitation work has consisted of so far. Why Smith didn’t stick around Green Bay after being placed on IR is unclear as well.

Smith missed all but one practice of training camp with the back injury, which landed him on the non-football injury list when he reported to camp on July 27. He had been disgruntled with his contract situation but played on a part-time basis in the Packers’ 38-3 loss to the Saints on Sept. 12 but was subsequently placed on injured reserve and underwent back surgery, the details of which have not been made public.

Since Smith last played in a game, the Packers have won seven straight entering this Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Packers added ex-Houston Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus two weeks ago and he has played well in spot duty against the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals the past two games.

Still, if Smith is motivated and healthy, he would certainly help the Packers down the stretch and into the playoffs.

“It’s just the fact you can see him,” LaFleur said. “Like I said, he seems to be in good spirits, which is always important. It was just good to have him back in the building.”

Let’s make a deal?

LaFleur didn’t sound like he was necessarily expecting general manager Brian Gutekunst to find a help on the trade market — certainly nothing in line with the Los Angeles Rams’ acquisition of eight-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Von Miller from Denver — but LaFleur said the personnel staff is working on augmenting the roster, which has been beset by injuries.

The Packers are roughly $5 million under the salary cap, making adding a high-priced players at Tuesday’s trade deadline challenging. They would likely need a player’s former team to assume some of that player’s 2021 salary to fit him beneath the cap and still have room to maneuver the rest of the season.

“If the right opportunity presents itself, that’s something that we could be involved with,” LaFleur said. “I know Gutey and his staff are working extremely hard at trying to find something. It’s just whether or not the right opportunity exists.”

TV guide

With the Chiefs facing the New York Giants on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” LaFleur said he and his coaches will likely have the game on in the background as they start working on this week’s game plan.

But they won’t be glued to their TV sets looking to glean anything off the broadcast. The team has staffers in the video department recording and monitoring the television broadcast in search of audio of line calls and audibles — like the rest of the NFL does — that can be used against their upcoming opponents.

“We’ve got everything (as far as game film) broken down up until this point. As soon as the game is over and our guys get an opportunity to get it in (to work), they’ll break the game down,” LaFleur said. “We’ll certainly pay more attention to it when it’s in our system, and just in terms of analyzing it because sometimes it’s hard to see everything on the television copy. You kind of have it on in the background, but I’d say as far as the majority of our focus is what is in our system right now.”


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