Preston Smith had a significantly tougher time imposing his will for the Green Bay Packers’ defense last season, and it seems the team has some idea about what caused him to drop off so much between 2019 and 2020.
Smith produced eight fewer sacks and 18 fewer pressures in 2020 after recording career-high numbers in his inaugural 2019 season with the Packers. While there was a misconception the 28-year-old outside linebacker was dropped into coverage more often last year — he actually spent a smaller percentage of his total snaps in coverage — his production was unbecoming of a player earning $13 million per season.
Turns out, Smith’s 2020 decline might have been of his own making. According to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky, the Packers believe “poor conditioning” was part of the reason for why the veteran pass rusher struggled because it led to him “playing above his listed weight of 265 pounds” throughout his second season in Green Bay.
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Can Smith Find Redemption in 2021?
Heading into 2021 training camp, there are no doubts about Smith’s continued role with the team. He agreed to take a pay cut with the Packers back in March, helping them create salary-cap relief while also guaranteeing himself a place on the roster for a third season. He can also earn back all of the money lost through sack incentives, which will be well worth it for the Packers if he maxes out with 14 sacks.
There are some questions about Smith’s ability to bounce back, though, even under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, who worked with him as a rookie in Washington. The Packers have Za’Darius Smith, a second-team All-Pro selection in 2020, returning as one of the centerpieces of their defense and 2019 first-round pick Rashan Gary heading into a pivotal third season, hungry for more snaps. As useful as all three pieces can be, Green Bay will have a tough time splitting reps evenly between their three pass rushers.
Right now, the Packers seem poised to roll with the Smith Bros. as their starters for another year with Gary slotting in as the top rotational piece, but Smith still has to prove he can raise his game to the appropriate levels again. Otherwise, Gary — who tallied five sacks while playing just 44% of defensive snaps in 2020 — could force him down the depth chart and make his incentive-chasing more difficult.
Smith Looked ‘Leaner’ for 2021 OTAs
Smith didn’t get to showcase his progress during mandatory minicamp earlier in June, spending the entire three-day event going through the COVID protocol. He was, however, present for earlier portions of the Packers’ offseason program and caught the attention of reporters and coaches alike for his improved physique.
“He does look a lot leaner than he did coming in last training camp. But no, there wasn’t as much (of an emphasis),” Packers outside linebackers coach Mike Smith told reporters during OTAs on May 26. “Those guys know how I feel about training. To me, that’s the edge and that’s the secret.
“Guys get tired, and you get into the fourth quarter, they’re eventually going to give up. The better shape we’re in, we can go all game, and it’s better for us. Those guys know. So, I’m sure Preston is training his butt off, which you can tell when he came in.”