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Packers draft preview: Whatever position Za’Darius Smith occupies, more edge-rushing help may be needed
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PACKERS | NFL DRAFT

Packers draft preview: Whatever position Za’Darius Smith occupies, more edge-rushing help may be needed

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smith photo 4-24

Outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith, right, had 12½ sacks last season, the second-highest total of his career. Preston Smith, left, tied his career low with four.

GREEN BAY — Za’Darius Smith gave no context to the tweet, no explanation for why he decided the statement was necessary.

“I’m a defensive end, not a(n) outside linebacker” the Green Bay Packers — defensive end? outside linebacker? edge rusher? — tapped out on his iPhone on Wednesday afternoon. “Who do I need to talk to about changing that?”

With 26 sacks and two Pro Bowl selections in his two years in Green Bay, Smith can probably ask the Packers to list him as “playmaker” or “field-tilter” and the team would oblige.

Although Smith wasn’t as dominant as he’d been in his first year in town after getting a four-year, $66 million free-agent deal to leave Baltimore — according to Pro Football Focus, Smith cratered from an NFL-best 93 total pressures to only 51 last season — he remains the Packers’ most influential edge rusher.

His running mate, Preston Smith (no relation), was a keen disappointment in his second year in Green Bay. First-round draft pick Rashan Gary took a giant leap forward after being a non-factor as a rookie but has hardly arrived just yet.

Preston Smith saw his production drop precipitously in both sacks (from 12 to four) and quarterback pressures (from 55 to 26) last season, so he accepted a restructured contract that will pay him $4 million less than he was slated to make in 2021.

He had been scheduled to be paid a $4.5 million roster bonus before the restructure, as well as a $6.8 million base salary and a $650,000 workout bonus in 2021 for $12 million in total compensation. Now, he’ll be paid $8 million — a $1 million base salary, a $6.5 million signing bonus (with cap hits that can now be spread out over future years); a $200,000 workout bonus, and a potential $300,000 in weekly roster bonuses for being on the active 46-man game-day roster.

He will receive a $500,000 bonus for recording six sacks; an additional $750,000 for reaching eight sacks; another $750,000 for reaching 10 sacks; another $1.2 million if he records 12 sacks; and another $1.2 million if he reaches 14 sacks.

Gary, meanwhile, showed significant improvement during his second NFL season as the former No. 12 overall pick saw his production spike while playing in 15 regular-season games (four starts). He finished with 11 quarterback hits (tied for second-most on the team) and five sacks (second only to Za’Darius Smith’s 12.5). He was arguably the Packers best defensive player in the team’s NFC divisional win over the Los Angeles Rams, registering seven quarterback pressures and 1.5 sacks.

While a trio of the two Smiths — if Preston returns to form — and an up-and-coming Gary might seem sufficient at the position, not knowing what to expect from Preston Smith’s third season in Green Bay could lead general manager Brian Gutekunst to spend a first- or second-day pick on another edge rusher, especially given how difficult it can be to find elite players at the position.

There’s also the matter of new defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s scheme, because while all schemes want disruptive pass rushers, Barry may have other ideas of what the ideal outside linebacker looks like.

“I’ve been able to be a part of so many different defenses and so many different philosophies, and I formulated my own. This is going to be our system, our package, the 2021 Green Bay Packers system,” Barry said when he was introduced last month. “I’ve been able to see a lot of football through different lenses based on the people I’ve worked for and the people that I’ve worked with.

“I’m not going to make a bunch of promises or bold predictions, but defensive football bottom line is about guys killing blocks and getting off blocks. It’s about tackling. It’s about taking the ball away. It’s about playing with not effort but relentless effort. Those are things we’re going to do here. Really, with those things, it doesn’t matter if you’re 4-3, if you’re 3-4 … it doesn’t matter.”

Depth chart

55 Za’Darius Smith — 6-4, 272, Kentucky

91 Preston Smith — 6-5, 265, Mississippi State

52 Rashan Gary — 6-5, 277, Michigan

53 Jonathan Garvin — 6-4, 257, Miami

56 Randy Ramsey — 6-3, 238, Arkansas

50 Tipa Galeai — 6-5, 229, Utah State

Best in class

Azeez Ojulari, Georgia

Whatever the somewhat undersized (6-foot-2, 249 pounds) Ojulari lacks in size, he makes up for in athleticism, explosiveness and the ability to disrupt. In 10 games last season as a redshirt sophomore for the Bulldogs, he registered 12.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks — enough to lead the SEC in both categories. He also led the conference in forced fumbles (four). He impressed scouts with his flexibility and his skill at getting off blocks — even those by linemen much bigger than he is.

“I just feel like my versatility and the way I use my hands (and) the way I can bend,” Ojulari replied when asked what separates him from other edge rushers in the draft. “I feel like I’m the most bendy and versatile, and I’ve got an explosive first step. And, I can also drop in coverage, too. So you’re not just getting a pass rusher out of me, you’re getting all three downs. I can play all three downs for sure. I just feel like I’m that guy. Definitely.”

Best of the rest

Kwity Paye, Michigan; Jaelan Phillips, Miami (Fla.); Jayson Oweh, Penn State; Joe Tryon, Washington; Gregory Rousseau, Miami (Fla.); Joseph Ossai, Texas.

Pick to click

Carlos Basham Jr., Wake Forest

The 6-foot-3, 274-pound Basham did the University of Wisconsin a favor and opted out of the Demon Deacons’ matchup with the Badgers in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, making quarterback Graham Mertz’s life much easier in UW’s win. Basham’s breakout season came in 2019, when he had 11 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles while earning first-team All-ACC honors. He still managed five sacks in just seven games during Wake Forest’s COVID-shortened season last year, and he left the school having recorded 20.5 sacks, 34.5 tackles for loss and 149 tackles.

Nicknamed “Boogie” by a babysitter who saw him constantly dancing whenever she would watch him, Basham is a borderline first-round pick who may slip into the second round and be a quality value for a team in need of edge rushing help.

“Growing up, I always found myself in the backfield, especially on defense,” Basham said after his pro day on March 31. “Then coming to Wake … the scheme we have is built around us making TFLs, getting in the backfield a lot. So, for me, if you get back there, you’ve got to make a play. So that’s just how I play. If I don’t make it, I know one of my players will. Just like with them. If they don’t make it, they know I’ll be there immediately.”

History lesson

Since shifting to a 3-4 defense in 2009 when Dom Capers took over as coordinator, the Packers have invested heavily in outside linebackers and edge rushers, starting with franchise all-time sack leader Clay Matthews, who was the second of then-GM Ted Thompson’s two first-round picks in the 2009 draft. Thompson went to the edge in the first round again in 2012 (USC’s Nick Perry) and 2013 (UCLA’s Datone Jones), though both Perry and Jones were bigger players who could have been 4-3 defensive ends, too. Gary, who was the first of Gutekunst’s two first-round selections in 2019, spent much of his time at Michigan with his hand on the ground, so his development as a stand-up edge rusher remains a work in progress.

It’s worth noting the Packers have gotten plenty of production from outside linebackers who weren’t high-profile picks, with undrafted free agents Cyril Obiozor (2009), Frank Zombo (2010), Vic So’oto (2011), Dezman Moses (2012), Andy Mulumba (2013) and Jayrone Elliott (2014) all having made the roster coming out of training camp and were part of the outside linebacker rotation as rookies.

Last year, Gutekunst found an interesting edge-rushing prospect in the seventh round in Jonathan Garvin, who left Miami (Fla.) early for financial considerations to support his family. And Randy Ramsey (a former undrafted player who saw action in 12 games on the active roster last season) and Tipa Galeai (an undrafted rookie last year who spent all season on the practice squad) remain in the mix for a spot in 2021.

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