Can Preston Smith Bounce Back in 2021?

The Green Bay Packers defense needs an effective pass rush if they hope to be contenders again in 2021.

In 2019, Green Bay had one of the top pass rushing units in the league. Both Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith had double-digit sack campaigns and the Packers were among the league leaders in pressures and quarterback hits.

But in 2020, the pass rush fell off a bit. Za’Darius Smith was good but not quite as dominant as he was the previous season while Preston Smith’s statistics fell off considerably. The former Mississippi State star recorded only four sacks in 2020 after career-high 12 the previous season. His pressures also went down from 34 to 16 and his quarterback hits fell from 23 to 11.

During the offseason, there were rumors that the Pack might release Preston Smith to free up cap space, but instead GM Brian Gutekunst restructured Preston Smith’s contract. The Packers added voidable years and essentially made his deal a one-year contract with lots of incentives based on sacks and other statistics.

We know that Za’Darius Smith will be the Packers top edge rusher entering training camp and that former first-round pick Rashan Gary is improving and should see an expanded role in the defense. So where does that leave Preston?

Well, there are several reasons for hope. One factor that caused Preston to have an off year in 2020 was that he reported to training camp noticeably heavier than he was the previous season. It took him most of the season to get back into shape and his play did pick up late in the year.

At OTAs last month, Preston clearly was in better shape and had shed a few pounds over his 2020 playing weight. It appeared that he has dedicated himself to being ready to play at his best this year.

Preston also has a battle on his hands with Rashan Gary for playing time. Last year, his play picked up when Gary was inserted as the starter ahead of him late in the season. The competition and threat to his starting spot seemed to inspire Preston to pick up his game.  That competition will continue this season.

In addition, the revisions to Preston’s contract should keep him hungry. He knows his ultimate compensation is tied to his performance on the field. If he meets his incentives, he can make almost as much money as he was scheduled to make prior to the changes to his deal. But if he struggles again in 2021, he will earn less money.

Because of the voidable years on this revised contract, Preston is also playing for his future. The Packers will not bring him back in 2022 if he doesn’t perform this season. In addition, if he struggles on the field, he will have a tougher time signing with another team if the Packers don’t re-sign him. If he does find another deal, it will be for less money than he would earn if he played well during this season.

There is one more pattern worth mentioning when discussing Preston Smith’s NFL career. He has consistently performed better in odd-numbered seasons than he has in even numbered years. In 2015, he had eight sacks, a number he matched two-years later in 2017. In 2019, his first year in Green Bay, he had a career-high 12 sacks.

Meanwhile, in 2016, Preston managed only 4.5 sacks and he fell to four sacks in both 2018 and 2020 despite playing in all 16 games each of those years. If the pattern holds, Preston is due for another productive year in 2021.

Preston Smith also has an advantage over some of his teammates in that he played two seasons under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry. When Preston was with Washington in his first two NFL seasons, Barry was the team’s defensive coordinator. While the scheme will not be identical, Preston is familiar with the way Barry conducts practices and what he expects from his players. This could allow him to hit the ground running in training camp as Barry installs his defense after taking over for Mike Pettine.

The old expression in the NFL is that you can’t have enough pass rushers. On paper, the Packers have several players who can get to the passer. In addition to Za’Darius Smith, Gary and Preston Smith, the Packers will be looking at Kingsley Keke to take a step forward in his third NFL season and for interior lineman Kenny Clark to stay healthy and return to his 2019 form.

Getting Preston Smith back to or even close to the level he was playing at two years ago could be a big plus for the Packers. The opportunity is clearly there for Preston Smith. Now he needs to take advantage of it.

You can follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers

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Comments (21)

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mnbadger's picture

July 15, 2021 at 12:09 pm

Go get'm PSmith. Earn your bonuses this year and jump to a jumbo contract next year. All based on high level performance, which he is capable of. Has anybody confirmed if weight gain was due to change in responsibilities going into 2020 or if he actually reported out of shape. I don't remember reporting saying he was soft, just that he added mass to defend the run better. I'm a huge fan of 91 and expect to see another big year from him this season. GPG!

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GilMartin's picture

July 15, 2021 at 03:47 pm

Also a fan of his, mnbadger. I believe he reported heavier but I'm not sure if that was be design or he was less prepared for the season because of the unusual offseason last year. Hope he returns to form this season. Thanks for commenting.

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Oppy's picture

July 15, 2021 at 12:12 pm

The old expression applies to almost every position on the field.

The new, less redundant expression should be, "You can have too many Kickers, punters, and long snapper specialists on a team"

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HawkPacker's picture

July 15, 2021 at 12:13 pm

This was a subject that had been discussed earlier in the off season so none of this is really new news!

However, good job putting everything together on this Gil as Preston Smith is a very important part of the defense if the defense is to improve over last year.

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GilMartin's picture

July 15, 2021 at 03:48 pm

Having a productive Preston Smith will make a big difference for the defense. If he, Za'Darius and Rashan Gary are all playing well the pass rush could be devastating. Thanks for commenting, HawkPacker.

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Oppy's picture

July 15, 2021 at 12:16 pm

I think Gary naturally getting more shares of the snaps at OLB will actually help Preston Smith return to form.
Preston will be fresher and likely more more apt to really focus on his assignment when he is on the field.

I think we could potentially see Gary playing nearly all defensive snaps, with Preston rotating in at the edge on rushing downs or other specific situations, with Gary staying on the field but being moved around a bit.

I don't know how Preston's paycheck would look if he's not able to stay on the field in a starting capacity, as increased performance doesn't guarantee gross numbers if your working with limited snap counts.

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GilMartin's picture

July 15, 2021 at 03:50 pm

It will be a tough call. I think he could be more productive or as productive with fewer snaps if he stays fresh and is in good playing shape. It will be interesting. I wonder how Joe Barry will change the way the edge rushers are utilized. Thanks for the comment.

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jannes bjornson's picture

July 15, 2021 at 10:50 pm

Smith should have been traded during the draft. Gary has to be your starter/playmaker. Read'em and weep.

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Oppy's picture

July 16, 2021 at 09:21 am

I think Gary will be “the starter”. I think the packers felt Preston smith is a pretty damn good player to come off the bench.

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Oppy's picture

July 16, 2021 at 09:21 am

I think Gary will be “the starter”. I think the packers felt Preston smith is a pretty damn good player to come off the bench.

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ImFubared's picture

July 15, 2021 at 12:55 pm

Lets hope so. However, the biggest issue, the numero uno issue is, can Kevin King play defense and stop the other team from putting up easy six pointers on his flawed play.
Pass rushing, running, passing, none of that matters when a Tom Brady has a stooge to take advantage of over and over again and the pack have no answer for. King costs the team the game, the super bowl all of it. He was the weak link and Brady exploited it.

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GilMartin's picture

July 15, 2021 at 03:51 pm

King let up a big play at the end of the half and he needs to be more consistent. He's back on a prove-it, one year deal and let's see what he can do.

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jannes bjornson's picture

July 15, 2021 at 10:50 pm

He is a waste of money.

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jannes bjornson's picture

July 16, 2021 at 07:23 pm

King as a safety may save his career.

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jhtobias's picture

July 15, 2021 at 12:55 pm

I hope he bounces back and crushes rodgers and his smug hollywood frauds in thw process.. go get em preston

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GilMartin's picture

July 15, 2021 at 03:51 pm

I hope he bounces back. It's a key season for him.

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greengold's picture

July 15, 2021 at 02:50 pm

I think Preston Smith is going to be insanely good this season. His restructure to help the team is loaded with the incentives that will reap big rewards. This should be fun to watch.

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GilMartin's picture

July 15, 2021 at 03:52 pm

Agreed, greengold. I think he'll be motivated, that's for sure. Thanks for the comment.

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ricky's picture

July 15, 2021 at 06:28 pm

Even if he has a very good year, it would be wise for the Packers to part ways with him after this season. Why? Because he had a career year his first year with the Packers, then became good but not special his second year. This is effectively a "contract year" for Smith, and it's not unusual for players in this situation to have very good years, sign a big deal with lots of guaranteed money, then become pedestrian or worse once again. Take the really good year, see if it's possible to trade him, but be willing to release him and move Gary up to being full time next season.

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KnockTheSnotOutOfYou's picture

July 15, 2021 at 08:27 pm

So not a fan of Preston! Sorry!

Have never seen a LB with a belly like Preston. Hope he has a great year but hope they let him go next year. You are a professional athlete for crying out loud. Just because you had a great year in 2019 you lost your motivation. Message to GBP's front office....pray for an outstanding year from Preston, but let him walk because I guarantee he will not be motivated after a succesful contract year. Looks to me like unless Jonathan Garvin really improves OLB will once again be an important draft selection in 2022.

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NickPerry's picture

July 16, 2021 at 08:55 am

Preston Smith will regain his 2019 form. He reported to OTA's in fantastic shap. He NEEDS to preform to make up all that money after they redid his contract. He's basically playing for a new contract elsewhere next year most likely. BUT, the MAIN reason is this is an "Odd" year. Preston Smith has done this his entire career. Up one year, down the next. He was up in 2019, down in 2020, and he'll be up again in 2021. Great news for the Packers because we'll need all hands on deck to win our 5th Lombardy Trophy, and 14th NFL Championship!

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