What to Expect from Preston Smith? The Answer Lies in the Middle

There were a few things from this Green Bay Packers offseason that I’m assuming caught most of us by surprise—the re-signings of Kevin King and Aaron Jones, this whole Aaron Rodgers’ saga, to name a few. But I’m also going to guess that up there with those aforementioned items was that the team didn’t move on from Preston Smith.

As we all remember, Smith was coming off a very down 2020 season in which his sack total fell from 15 in 2019 to just five this past year, according to PFF, as did his pressure total, which plummeted from 62 to 29.

Not to mention that from a pass-rushing efficiency standpoint, Smith ranked 108th out of 121 eligible edge rushers by PFF’s pass-rush productivity metric. He would also struggle against the run.

Take that lack of production, couple it with a $16 million cap hit and a team in a serious cap crunch due to the salary cap falling from $198.2 million to $182.5 million, and naturally, we thought that the Packers would cut Smith in favor of the $8 million in cap savings.

Instead, the two parties came to an agreement on a pay cut that still saved Green Bay nearly $8 million in cap space but allows Smith to earn some of it back in the form of bonuses if he hits certain performance thresholds.

So with Smith back in the fold for the 2021 season, what can we expect from him production-wise? As is often the case, the answer likely lies somewhere in the middle.

Looking back at the 2020 season, it was unfair to think that Smith was going to replicate his 2019 performance—that was a career year for him, after all. Smith’s 15 sacks, 62 pressures, 92 total tackles, and 29 stops — or plays that result in a loss for the offense, per PFF — were all career highs.

So once again, it would be foolish to assume or hope that Smith will regain that 2019 form here in 2021. Maybe, but not likely.

On the flip side, I do expect Smith to outperform his 2020 season. His 71 total tackles were the fewest since 2016, when Smith played roughly 130 fewer snaps than what he did in 2020. And the same goes for the number of sacks he recorded, while his 29 pressures were the lowest season total of his career.

It’s also important to note that Smith appears to be in much better shape this year. During OTAs, OLB coach Mike Smith mentioned that Smith “does look a lot leaner than he did coming into last training camp.” This was likely a big contributor to his down season, and the simple fact that he’s just in better shape will hopefully boost his pass-rushing numbers.

So as we all wonder what the 2021 season will look like for Preston Smith, it probably won’t consist of 62 pressures and 15 sacks, but it will also probably be better than what we saw from him in 2020.

How do eight sacks and 45 pressures sound? That production paired with Za’Darius Smith and the ascending Rashan Gary will form quite the formidable edge-rushing trio for opposing offensive lines to contend with. And when it comes to defensive success, getting pressure on the quarterback is the name of the game.

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Born and raised in Green Bay, WI and I still call it home. After my family, watching the Packers, sharing my opinions on the team through my writing and interacting with other fans is my greatest passion. You can find me on Twitter at @Paul_Bretl. 
 

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Comments (27)

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Leatherhead's picture

July 19, 2021 at 11:24 am

Sacks and pressures, sacks and pressures. Good thing he never has to defend the run or drop into coverage.

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Matt Gonzales's picture

July 19, 2021 at 12:47 pm

I don't get why they had Preston dropping back as much as he did. He wasn't a total liability there, but it definitely isn't his strong suit. My guess is we will see Preston be on the field less overall, and when he is, as a designated pass rusher. I'd rather see either Z or Gary inside when they want to put an OLB inside. Z has better skills shedding blocks, and Gary is better against the run. Of course, if/when Slayton comes on and can be on the field more, Clark will be able to slide over to DE, which will help create more interior pressure.

Burks wasn't terrible either when they played him inside - if he makes the roster he would probably be that extra LB to occupy the middle of the field, and then the OLBs and Clark will just be chasing the QBs into each other's hands.

(Wishful thinking, but that is what this time of year is for!)

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Oppy's picture

July 19, 2021 at 04:56 pm

Preston Smith is a better run defender than pass rusher, though.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

July 19, 2021 at 08:50 pm

Neither Gary nor Zadarius drop into coverage. Preston for his career has been okay at it. So when the DC wants to disguise where the pass rush is going to come from or wants to overload one side without blitzing, an OLB often has to drop into coverage. By default, that's Preston.

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Coldworld's picture

July 20, 2021 at 08:13 am

We have not replaced Fackrell’s role yet. The attempt last year was Oren Burks and was a total failure. This year, one of whoever is behind the Smiths and Gary needs to have learnt or have the ability to fill the cover role. Perhaps Garvin or Tipa, the most likely physical candidates, have learned, perhaps it’s someone new. I don’t see Ramsey being a cover prospect athletically (happy to be wrong). Smith needs to be what he was in 2019 in terms of usage as well as conditioning.

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Matt Gonzales's picture

July 22, 2021 at 08:26 am

Fair point, but it still feels like a square peg in a round hole. Hopefully some of the younger and more athletic LBs show they can earn some more playing time where they can earn more playing time in those scenarios without being a liability.

Preston coming in smaller and better conditioned could help there too, but all of our primary pass rushers dropping back to try to cover a TE or slot receiver fills me with dread.

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Johnblood27's picture

July 20, 2021 at 07:15 am

You lost me at "Burks wasn't terrible..."

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Coldworld's picture

July 20, 2021 at 08:15 am

Agreed, he was so bad that they essentially stopped playing him by October unless he was the last man standing.

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LambeauPlain's picture

July 20, 2021 at 09:52 am

Burks is just mostly a ST player. I don't think he makes the 53 this year...too many good young guys now who can play STs and play productively on O or D.

As an ILB Burks is a bust. He is fast in the 40 but slow and lacks instincts on the field. Trying him at OLB was verification he was on thin ice that was about to crack.

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Matt Gonzales's picture

July 22, 2021 at 11:13 am

Honestly? I have no effing clue what point I was trying to make. I think I was thinking of Martin and Burks at the same time, because Burks had a few plays where he lined up outside and he looked a bit less lost than when he was inside, but MARTIN was the chase linebacker who was showing some flashes.

I do think it will be our younger OLBs though that will need to be able to drop back to flood the passing lanes when one or more of our primary pass rushers are playing hand in the dirt

Again, my apologies for such incomprehensible word salad.

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LambeauPlain's picture

July 20, 2021 at 10:40 am

PFF ranked Preston 93rd out of 109 Edge Rushers in Pass Coverage. He needs to rush the passer and stop the run. No more coverage. When he was in coverage, the opponents pick on him a lot with great success.

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Packer_Fan's picture

July 19, 2021 at 12:27 pm

I am glad they resigned Smith. And I believe he will bounce back. I have a feeling Smith was embarrassed with his performance last year.

Now the Packers need to bring Rodgers back in. Love has a few more years to learn.

And this is the first year that I am feeling good about the top three picks making significant contributions

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Stroh's picture

July 20, 2021 at 08:57 am

The Packers can't bring Rodgers back. He has to come back on his own, by his own choice! And he will!!

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dobber's picture

July 19, 2021 at 12:30 pm

The Packers really weren't going to be able to buy another capable or proven edge on the market for less than they renegotiated P. for, and renegotiating Smith took some pressure off their draft. An OLB/edge draft pick might be able to play right away...or maybe not. The Packers still have 3 NFL-caliber OLBs. As it stands, this is likely P's last season in GB, so the Packers will have to formulate a plan to replace him.

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scullyitsme's picture

July 19, 2021 at 12:32 pm

If Preston has 8 sacks it probably means Gary hasn’t earned the starting job, or at least is still playing less than 50% of the snaps. What would that say about Gary is the bigger question? He has been hyped on this site so much, that would be a blow.

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Coldworld's picture

July 19, 2021 at 01:06 pm

Surely that assumes it’s Gary or Preston? Perhaps it is, but I don’t see that it has to be. That will be one thing that I will be looking at during camp as part of understanding what a Barry D will look like.

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Leatherhead's picture

July 19, 2021 at 03:22 pm

I would think that your four best guys at pressure would be Clark, Gary, Smith and Smith. That’s who I’d want on passing downs.

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Johnblood27's picture

July 20, 2021 at 07:16 am

Keke can bring it inside on passing downs as well...

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Coldworld's picture

July 19, 2021 at 01:04 pm

My immediate thought was that you were referring to his waistline. In which case, from reports, you would have been correct. However, if indeed conditioning or at least body mass was at issue, I see little reason to assume that Smith can’t play at the level he reached in 2019 if his usage is similar and Barry returns to the more aggressive mindset from which Pettine retreated after that season.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

July 19, 2021 at 08:55 pm

LOL. Wonder if the author intended to make that joke?

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Coldworld's picture

July 20, 2021 at 08:17 am

I wondered too, but it made me chuckle whether intended or not.

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porupack's picture

July 19, 2021 at 01:05 pm

The points for a bounce back in stats and impact: a) leaner and more in shape, b) paycut and incentives, c) some fluke about odd years, d) new coach and continued confidence by the staff, e) emergence of Gary and reduced snap count for P may mean fresher rotation, f) Emergence of Gary may result in the 2Smith/Gary all 3 pressing the QB and about 8-10 half sacks.

The points against a bounceback a) the 2020 trend downward, b) ageing, c) Rashan Gary supplanting PSmith.

Hmmm. 6-8 sacks sounds good when he collects a lot of half sacks. Its a pretty good configuration of Z, Gary, P and Clark plus the slayton tanker truck. With a coverage group even with King and the untested Stokes, we can justify a little optimism.

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jont's picture

July 19, 2021 at 02:36 pm

My crystal ball is as cloudy as they come, but I expect a really good year from Preston. The incentives of this season and damaged pride from last season will drive him, but the real improvement in output will come from his being in the correct role. By this I mean as one of several guys working together to cause havoc for the other side. If Z continues to produce, if Gary continues to improve, and if the new DC can put people in position to succeed, then Preston will make some plays.

Yes, this is a few ifs, but my point is that Preston can be an important force out there as part of a better performing unit. He might not end up with the numbers, but I can see stories on this board in November that say "you know, Preston's having a better season that you might think."

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ricky's picture

July 19, 2021 at 04:57 pm

I'll repeat my comment from the last article about Smith and whether he could return to form. I hope he does. But even so, it would be a good idea to part ways with him at the end of the season. Why? Effectively, he's playing in a "contract year", and all too many players do really well during that time frame, only to fall back into mediocrity or worse once they have achieved their goal of bigger money. AJ Hawk is a prime example. Get everything you can out of Smith, let him go, draft someone else and have Gary get a bigger role.

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jannes bjornson's picture

July 19, 2021 at 09:07 pm

Maybe he's moved at the trade deadline?

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GatorJason's picture

July 19, 2021 at 06:33 pm

Middle as in between his 2019 and 2020 stats or middle as in the shape of his gut? If he loses his beer belly, he'll be near 2019 stats, if not, he'll be closer to 2020 stats.

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LambeauPlain's picture

July 20, 2021 at 10:26 am

I thought bringing back Preston on a "prove it" deal was well done. Smart because after the Smith's and Gary the depth is unproven late draft picks or FAs.

Two factors seemed to have hurt Preston's performance last year. His added weight slowed him down. Then Pettine and Smith continually kept him in coverage on passing downs....probably out of necessity. Fackrell was a disappointment on the edge but in coverage he was very good.

Hopefully one of the younger OLBs show they can perform in the coverage role (Garvin, Ramsey?) and let Preston go back to rushing the passer and stopping the run full time.

I think him showing up in top notch shape and play the 2019 role again will see a big bounceback.

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