Grading the Pack - Za'Darius Smith

Andy Herman grades the 2018 tape for new edge rusher Za'Darius Smith.

Clay Matthews + Nick Perry + Reggie Gilbert = -24.05

That was the final line for three of the four edge rushers who played for Green Bay a season ago. The individual grades were:

Reggie Gilbert -7.10
Nick Perry -7.65
Clay Matthews -9.30

Thankfully Kyler Fackrell had a pretty significant improvement from 2017 (-5.20) to 2018 (+3.15) or it could have been even worse.

Regardless of Fackrell’s improvement, it was quite obvious that a drastic overhaul was needed at the position. And that’s exactly what Brian Gutekunst did. Gone are Perry and Matthews. Matthews will playout his last NFL seasons in his home state while Nick Perry will get paid to NOT play for Green Bay. In fact Perry has yet to be picked up by any of the NFL’s 32 franchises – just another indictment of how far he has fallen.

With the subtractions of Perry and Clay, Green Bay needed an influx of young talent who could completely makeover this unit and give Mike Pettine the weapons he needs to really unleash his scheme. Enter Rashan Gary, Preston Smith, and Za’Darius Smith. I’ve already detailed Gary and Smith in breakdowns, but today it’s time to take a look at what Za’Darius Smith brings to the table.

https://cheeseheadtv.com/blog/self-scout-what-i-got-wrong-about-rashan-gary-515

https://cheeseheadtv.com/blog/grading-the-pack-adrian-amos-preston-smith-555

Let’s start off by taking a look at Za’Darius’ game-by-game grades in 2018:

Week 1: +0.0
Week 2: +0.5
Week 3: +0.8
Week 4: +0.4
Week 5: +0.55
Week 6: +1.15
Week 7: -0.2
Week 8: +0.55
Week 9: +0.75
Week 11: +0.25
Week 12: +0.4
Week 13: +0.00
Week 14: +0.35
Week 15: -0.2
Week 16: +1.10
Week 17: -0.25
Wild Card: -0.25

Total: +5.90

If you were to compare this to the rest of the Packers’ edge rushers from 2018, it would look like this:

New Packers:

Za’Darius Smith +5.90
Preston Smith +2.60
Rashan Gary: TBD

2018 Packers:

Kyler Fackrell +3.15
Reggie Gilbert -7.10
Nick Perry -7.65
Clay Matthews -9.30

If you include everyone that I have grades on for the defense in 2018, the top 5 would have graded as such:

Kenny Clark +13.10
Jaire Alexander +7.00
Mike Daniels +6.85
Adrian Amos +6.00
Za’Darius Smith +5.90

Strengths

Za’Darius’ biggest strength is his versatility. He can literally play anywhere across the defensive line as pictured below. He can play left to right, out wide, standing up, on the ground, and even over the center.

On obvious running downs, Za’Darius was predominantly on the outside and usually standing up, but on passing downs he was able to play anywhere that the Ravens wanted him too. I’d expect to see a lot of him lined up inside on obvious passing downs in Mike Pettine’s defense, but make no mistake, he’s going to be all over the field and Mike Pettine will find advantageous matchups that Smith can win one-on-one.

Smith is also very explosive off the line of scrimmage and uses his hands incredibly well. When you see Za’Darius at his best he’s able to get a quick jump off the line at the snap, quickly use his hands to swipe away the offensive lineman’s hands, and then use his agility and closing speed to explode to the quarterback.

Smith is also very slippery. I’ve seen him sneak between two linemen by getting small and then once again use his quickness to get past them and get into the backfield. He uses a hesitation move from time to time and generally is a player that hustles and plays through the whistle. There are multiple plays on tape where he’s chased down players from behind.

As an edge-setter, Smith is really good but not yet great. The only time he gets into trouble is when he explodes up the field too quickly and leaves himself susceptible to draws and traps. He can also lose discipline on reverses and jet sweeps but in general he’s very solid in this area.

He also is very adept at “shutting the back door” as the backside defender. This means that he will scrape down the line and make sure that running backs aren’t able to cut back and find a hole on the backside. When running backs try to cut back against Smith he’s more than happy to make them pay for it.

Maybe the most important aspect of Smith’s game is that even his bad games aren’t that bad. He had four games that graded in the negative, -0.2, -0.2,-0.25, and -0.25. Those are basically neutral games. At no point in 2018 was he overmatched regardless of his opponent and even when he had off games he was able to make a few plays to make up for it.

Weaknesses

I’d argue that the biggest weakness in Za’Darius’ game right now is his full move-set and path to the quarterback. As mentioned, Smith can win with quickness and he uses his hands incredibly well, but he needs to develop more counters and a way to win when his initial effort is stymied.

Smith also isn’t afraid to hit the quarterback and make sure the QB knows he’s there after the play. It’s mostly a good thing but he was flagged for one roughing penalty last year and there were probably a couple more that could have been called. At times it bordered on being a little bit cheap.

Green Bay has also already mentioned that they don’t want Smith really dropping back in coverage because that’s not how he wins. Expect to see Preston Smith with more coverage snaps although Za’Darius wasn’t bad at it in 2018.

Lastly, Smith will disappear from time to time and while that’s normal for most defensive linemen and edge rushers, he’s got to find a way to make an impact with a bit more consistency to take that next step as a top tier pass rusher in the league.

Smith isn’t a Pro Bowl or All-Pro caliber player at this point in his career but he’s really, really good and the difference between the edge rushers that Green Bay put on the field in 2018 and Smith will be immediately noticeable to all Packer fans. Smith is going to come up with some very big plays in 2019.

Smith should be able to have a similar role as he did last year because of the newfound depth on the edge. Rashan Gary, Kyler Fackrell and Preston Smith should all be capable of playing as many snaps as needed so that none of the four players has dead legs by the end of a game or the end of the season.

While Smith is a really good player, he’s always going to be matched up against his 4-year - $66.0 million contract that makes him the 10th highest paid edge rusher in football. Smith was good last year, but not top-10 good. And honestly, that’s ok. He’s going to be such an improvement that even if he’s not a top-10 edge rusher, he can more than make up for it by being a massive improvement for this defense and making a true impact. Barring injury, I have a hard time imagining Smith busting and Green Bay ending up disappointed with this contract by the time it’s over with.

Edge rusher is by far and away going to be my favorite position group to watch as we enter this season. Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, and Rashan Gary all have Pro Bowl level talent and a coach in Mike Smith who has a reputation for developing that talent and getting them to play at a very high level. They are all perfect scheme fits within Mike Pettine’s scheme and if one or two of them can really breakout in 2019, than Green Bay is going to have a chance at a legit top-10 defense this year.

There’s no question that this is the season where hope springs eternal and everyone has the highest of hopes for the team and the players they acquired in the offseason, but the best way to predict future success is by looking back at past behavior. When I look as closely as humanly possible at the 2018 tape of Gary, Smith, and Smith, it’s impossible not to be excited about the massive makeover that Green Bay underwent throughout the offseason.

Kudos to Brian Gutekunst on addressing a major area of need with some really exciting talent and replacing players that struggled mightily in 2018 – the improvement should be immediately noticeable as Green Bay kicks off the season against Chicago.

How I Grade

  • Each player starts by getting a zero or neutral grade on a play. If they performed as expected on a play, their grade stays at zero.
  • For a slightly above or below average play, the player gets graded -0.1 or +0.1. The vast majority of grades on the vast majority of plays are graded -0.1, 0, or +0.1.
  • The highest and lowest grades on an individual play are +2.0 and -2.0 respectively. These would be large, game-changing plays.
  • I won’t grade a play negatively if I cannot tell which player was at fault.
  • Most of the time it’s impossible to tell the play, so I’m not grading on the execution of the play call as an NFL coach would.
  • The goal of this exercise is to grade every snap over the course of the season to get a long-term view of which performers are performing well and which are not meeting expectations. This is very similar to what Pro Football Focus tries to achieve. Is it perfect? No. But what you are getting is a consistent grader who is watching specifically Packer games and putting multiple hours into every week to breakdown film and assign grades.
  • Grades are for offense and defense only (including two point conversions). Special teams does not factor in.

__________________________

Andy is a graduate of UW-Oshkosh and owns & operates the Pack-A-Day Podcast. Andy has taken multiple courses in NFL scouting and appears weekly on 107.5 The Fan in Green Bay to breakdown film. This past season he was an analyst on Green Bay Nation on WFRV TV in Green Bay. Andy grew up in Green Bay and is a lifelong season ticket holder; follow him on Twitter at @sconniesports.

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Comments (11)

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dobber's picture

July 19, 2019 at 09:09 am

Remarkably consistent. That's what I see in those grades. He was regularly finding ways to make positive plays in 2018. These two (Smiths) signings bring consistency, versatility, and availability. Z. Smith was playing on a top defense in 2018, hopefully these changes and some good health will allow us to say similar things at this point next year.

Good stuff, Andy. Your work is greatly appreciated.

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Bearmeat's picture

July 19, 2019 at 11:35 am

I'm very excited to see the totally new OLB and safety position, the progress at CB. Excited about DL. Optimistic about the ILBs. This is goin gto be a very good defense!

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Jonathan Spader's picture

July 19, 2019 at 12:21 pm

I was really looking forward to this article and you did not disappoint Andy! Can't wait to see how Pettine uses Z Smith and how Mike Smith can help him develop.

Edit: I'm thinking back to 2018 when CHTV readers were excited about Perry and CM3 after looking at the OLBers Pettine worked with during his time with the Jets. Pettine made average players look like studs. I believe while they aren't elite that the Smiths are both above average players. Gary has elite athleticism. Fackrel has fantastic speed. Can't wait to see what Pettine does with an arsenal at OLB unlike any he's ever had on paper.

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Since '61's picture

July 19, 2019 at 09:24 am

Versatility, consistency and speed is what I see in these clips. Versatility and consistency are goods traits for any player but speed to the ball is what differentiates Smith from our previous pass rushers/OLBs.

I'm expecting both Smiths plus Gary and Savage to bring much more speed to our defense and this should cause disruption and hopefully result in more stops and turnovers. Time will tell but I think the Packers defense is finally heading in the right direction. Thanks, Since '61

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PatrickGB's picture

July 19, 2019 at 10:01 am

I would love to see Smith do that “let’s eat” thing when he nails E Elliott hard for a loss.

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Sol's picture

July 19, 2019 at 11:44 am

Great work Andy your analysis is very insightful. You are truly a student of the Game!! Hope we have a great season it starting to feel like we will have a few more turnovers and 3 and outs. Go Pack

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Mojo's picture

July 19, 2019 at 01:36 pm

Since this article is to educate us, Andy Hermans work here, and in the past, would be summa cum laude.

I've learned since he's been a contributor not to pass up a Herman post whether it be audio or visual. One of the best since CHTV has been going.

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Samson's picture

July 19, 2019 at 01:13 pm

Thanks again for the knowledge. -- Always feel smarter after reading & rereading your articles.

What I like most about the way the "D" is falling into place is the "whole unit" approach. -- There are strengths across the board with athleticism, speed, youth, durability & proven abilities. -- The projects of the last regime are gone. -- The Pack will own the North & the NFC. --- Booyah!!

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

July 19, 2019 at 02:00 pm

Nice article. Again, even a number-cruncher like me should not get bogged down by ZaDarius' contract.

Gute is more interested in the contribution Z. Smith can make on the field and his fit on the team rather than whether it is efficient in terms of production to cap spent.

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Packer Fan's picture

July 19, 2019 at 09:45 pm

Consistency and hurrying the QB is what I like. Looking forward to seeing that this year

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Nick Perry's picture

July 20, 2019 at 03:50 am

Z Smith is consistent, reliable, versatile, and productive in all aspects of his game. It's been a while since we as Packers fans have had a player like Za'Darius who could bring all that to the OLB position. I was on the Z Smith bandwagon before FA started though I didn't think it would cost what it cost to sign him but still thrilled we got him.

I know I've been a "Tad" or "Smidgen" optimistic about the Packers defense before they've even played a down. BUT I feel that strongly about the players they signed, drafted, and just as important the coaches they hired to coach them. It's been a long time since CMIII really was a terror off the edge. But even then teams didn't have to account for what they'll have to account for this year.

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