GREEN BAY — Opposing quarterbacks and offensive tackles who call Za’Darius Smith a mama’s boy this season will do so at their own peril. But they wouldn’t be wrong.
The Green Bay Packers’ new outside linebacker arrived earlier this month after signing a four-year, $66 million free-agent deal that included a $20 million signing bonus and $34.5 million to be paid out in its the first two years. But he took a detour, first — a 14-hour drive from Baltimore, where he’d played his first four NFL seasons with the Ravens, to his mother’s home in Greenville, Ala.
Why? To let her know that she could officially retire from her job at the Butler County (Ala.) Correctional Facility, a job she’s held for more than two decades.
“I sat down at my mom’s, and said, ‘Mom, you ready to quit working?’” Smith said with a smile. “And she said, ‘My bag is already packed.’ So that was pretty cool to do that.
“She’s been there for like 22 years, and she worked with a lot of inmates, so sometimes that can be a headache. To get there and see her, bags packed … it was a wonderful feeling to tell Mom she can quit working.”
There was only one problem: Sharon Smith wasn’t ready to retire, and her son posted to his Twitter account that she’d turned down his offer. “She still went back to work,” Smith wrote. “I guess after doing something for so long it’s hard to take that away from her.”
After telling my mom to retire! She still went back to work🤦🏽♂️I guess after doing something for so long its hard to take that way from her 🤷🏾♂️— Za'Darius Smith (@TheRealZSmith) March 25, 2019
Smith managed to at least do one other good deed for his mom, though: He bought her a new house. Of course, when he posed for a photo with her in front of her new home, Sharon was still in her work clothes — having come straight from that job she refused to quit.
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That seems to be a pretty good glimpse into the kind of player the Packers are getting in Smith, whose statistics have improved with each season, culminating in an 8.5-sack season last year for Baltimore. Smith, who played two years at East Mississippi Community College and two years at the University of Kentucky, only played one year of high-school football — he was a basketball player — and the Packers think he’s just scratching the surface of his ability.
That was general manager Brian Gutekunst’s thinking with not only Smith but with his edge-rushing running mate, Preston Smith, whom they signed to a four-year, $52 million deal despite having only four sacks last season.
“The one thing that’s so unique about those two guys is they’re still pretty young in their careers. I think that their best football’s in front of them,” new Packers coach Matt LaFleur said during last week’s coaches breakfast at the NFL Meetings in Arizona. “I think when you’ve got two guys taking care of the edges, it presents a lot of problems on the defense. And not only from a pass-rush perspective, I think those guys bring it in the run game as well — which sometimes is an oversight in this league.”
One reason the Packers felt so comfortable with Za’Darius Smith was how much information they had on him. New Packers director of football operations Milt Hendrickson, whom Gutekunst has known since they were at UW-La Crosse together in the 1990s, spent the last 14 seasons on the Ravens’ scouting staff, so he was there not only for the team picking Smith but for every snap of his NFL career so far.
“(Hendrickson) knew him through and through, so he knew the kind of locker room guy (Smith) was going to be, he knew the character of the man,” Gutekunst told Wisconsin reporters covering the NFL meetings at the Arizona Biltmore resort. “You worry about those things because when you sign guys to big contracts like that, (you wonder) what their motivation is and those kinds of things. Those things are important for us to know because you want to know what you’re getting.”
On the field, the Packers believe they’re getting an up-and-coming pass-rusher who’ll affect the quarterback not only with sacks but by bringing consistent pressure that they hope leads to more turnover plays. Last season, they got just five combined sacks from high-profile former first-round picks Clay Matthews (3.5) and Nick Perry (1.5), and the defense managed just 14 total takeaways — seven interceptions, seven fumbles.
Now, Matthews (who signed a two-year, $9.5 million free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Rams) and Perry (whom the team cut to save a $4.8 million roster bonus) are both gone, and the Packers will be counting on Smith to be the kind of field-tilting player Matthews and Perry were in past years when they were healthy.
Of course, had things played out differently during the 2015 NFL draft or when former general manager Ted Thompson dialed up the Ravens seeking to acquire Smith in a trade a couple of years ago, they all might have been playing together last season.
“Back when he was coming out, I just know the (personnel department) as a whole, (including) Ted, we liked his skill set, liked what he could do, thought he was really versatile. The player he’s become is what we saw,” Gutekunst said. “That defense in Baltimore, they had a lot of players that have been very, very good over the past few years and he was stuck behind some really, really good players.
“There were times we thought it might be a possibility. It didn’t happen, but I’m glad we got him (now).”
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.