Green Bay Packers

Za’Darius Smith: The Present and Future of the Packers Defense

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas (USA TODAY Sports)

It’s official: Za’Darius Smith has restructured his contract with the Green Bay Packers. It looks like we’re one step closer to ZD playing out the rest of his career in the green and gold, which is what Packers fans have wanted all along.

The restructure puts Smith’s 2021 base salary at the veteran minimum, converting the rest of the money as a signing bonus and saving Green Bay just north of $7 million in cap space this year.

While either a restructure or extension for Smith had been expected in the wake of Aaron Jonesnew contract, this commitment is a huge boost for the Packers. Going the extra length to ensure ZD has a spot on the team provides Green Bay with the financial flexibility needed to sign and retain other impactful free agents and ensures that one of the key pistons of the defensive engine remains in place.

Keeping Smith around on a more team-friendly deal also signifies that both parties are ready to maximize their championship window in the next couple of years. Green Bay’s present status as a title contender is absolute — and the same may be true for the team’s future.

The Present

Working alongside franchise patriarchs Mason Crosby and Aaron Rodgers, ZD has provided Green Bay with steady leadership as a team captain for two years running. Smith has quickly become a fan favorite in his first two seasons for the Packers since arriving from Baltimore, and his presence has helped curate a culture amongst the players that exudes confidence and swagger. We see the positive effects of this bravado on other defensive personnel; Jaire Alexander, Preston Smith, and Darnell Savage have all taken steps forward over the last two years with ZD on the team.

The last two years have also seen the Packers’ defense take massive leaps despite the oft-maligned and now-departed Mike Pettine, ranking ninth and 13th overall in PTS against in 2019 and 2020, respectively. It is exciting to think about how the defense can improve even further under Smith’s leadership and new defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s tutelage.

It also cannot be understated how important it is to have a leader on an NFL team who is unafraid to speak out on social issues. Smith’s advocacy for justice is powerful and sets a precedent for the rest of the team. In a league that has thus far continued to make its money while sidestepping direct support of movements that many players support, like Black Lives Matter, it is paramount that more teams have leaders who are willing to take a stance in the face of adversity.

Of course, this “bigger than stats” argument isn’t to suggest that Za’Darius Smith has some supposed lack of impact on the field. In Smith, Green Bay welcomes back their leader in sacks for each of the past two seasons, having more than two times as many sacks in the 2020 regular season as the next closest Packers player (12.5). Without the pass rush that ZD alone provides, the defensive unit as a whole takes a significant step back.

Smith’s presence is also the icing on the cake of a strong linebacking corps. With Preston Smith returning alongside Za’Darius on the outside, the Green Bay pass rush should remain one of the more fearsome units in the league. This will take the pressure off of the second-year ILB core of Kamal Martin and Krys Barnes. When you factor in the capable secondary personnel of Alexander, Savage, and Adrian Amos, it is apparent that the Packers defense is poised to have another strong season.

The Future

More often than not, retention of players is a sign of solid team chemistry, draft aptitude, and dedication to success. The Packers have had a strong offseason in that regard, re-signing many key players to new deals and extensions. With Za’Darius Smith’s restructure and Kevin King’s new prove-it deal, all eyes are now set on running it back for another shot at a chip. Green Bay will be aiming to not only make it to the NFC Championship for the third straight year but to finally bring the Lombardi Trophy back home after an 11-year vacation.

Beyond ZD’s immediate impact, we can see how the Packers are committing to a Smith and Barry (which sounds like a law firm or a firearm) defensive backbone and identity to build upon for the future. While fans were initially looking for Smith to sign an extension this offseason instead of a restructure, many signs point toward a potential extension coming after the 2021-22 season. That leaves the door open for both parties to work on a fair deal, one that may take into account a prospective Aaron Rodgers restructure or extension as well.

Speaking of the future, the youth on this Packers squad is certainly encouraging. Green Bay came into the 2020 season with the fifth-youngest roster in the league (25.5 avg. age). That’s the same place it ranked for the previous season (per Philly Voice). Having this youthful team book tickets to the NFC Championship for two years in a row bodes well for the franchise’s trajectory. It would certainly appear that, at this point, the Packers are ready to sustain their current successes.

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Amidst all of the uncertainty surrounding this franchise — mostly stemming from the unexpected Jordan Love selection and subsequent drama — Green Bay continues to make winning moves in the spotlight and on the margins. The restructuring of Za’Darius Smith’s contract ensures that a team captain returns with enthusiasm. This move also speaks to general manager Brian Gutekunst’s ability to effectively move finances around to assemble a championship squad. Titles are won on the fringes of a team’s roster, and Gutekunst has showcased a savvy ability to fill out these peripherals while keeping the heart and soul of the team intact.

Time will tell, but early predictions would certainly say that the Packers have a great shot at winning it all this year. With Za’Darius Smith firmly entrenched as a defensive pillar and leader, expect big things from Green Bay this upcoming season.

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