Za’Darius Smith - Yup, He’s the Best FA Signing in Green Bay

We're not even one full season in yet, and it's already apparent Za'Darius Smith could be an all-time signing for General Manager Brian Gutekunst. 

Back in June, I wrote a preview piece where I said Za’Darius Smith was the free agent signing I was the most excited about for Green Bay. I thought he had the most upside and could make the biggest immediate impact for a team struggling to find an identity on defense, specifically in pass rush. 

While that didn’t make me any less excited for General Manager Brian Gutekunst to acquire Preston Smith, Adrian Amos, and Billy Turner, Za’Darius was the guy I felt could put the defense over the top right away. Now almost seven months later, he’s not only in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, he should also strongly be considered for All-Pro, and he’s a team-elected captain leading the Packers defense into the playoffs. 

In that previous June article, I wrote about how Za’Darius Smith is an ascending player, and he’s having his best season to date at only 27-years-old. His best football should still be in front of him, and luckily, that football will be played in Green Bay.

With the Ravens in 2018, Smith had one forced fumble, 8.5 sacks, 45 combined tackles, and 25 quarterback hits. And that was when he was a rotational player only starting eight of 16 games.

Now in 2019, through 15 games, Smith has one forced fumble, 13.5 sacks, 54 combined tackles, and 35 quarterback hits. 

According to Pro Football Focus, in 2018, Smith earned an overall grade of 73.2, with a run defense grade of 55.0 and a pass rush grade of 80.2. He was credited with 60 total pressures in his 691 total snaps on defense.

Fast forward to 2019 and Smith’s numbers have skyrocketed. His overall rating has climbed almost 10 full points, as he currently sits at 90.1 overall with a run defense of 78.7 and a pass rush grade of 88.3. That puts him in PFF’s elite category. He’s also been credited with 87 pressures on 818 total snaps. 

While Za’Darius has put together some fantastic film during the 2019 season, to the surprise of no one, Smith’s best game as a Packer came Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings. He graded out with a 92.1 overall and was credited with 3.5 sacks on the day. He was playing for a hat and a t-shirt Monday night, and he certainly ended the game deserving of both. 

It can’t be lost on Smith that his previous best record came with the 2018 Ravens that finished 10-6, losing in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. He’s already surpassed his win total as part of this 12-3 Packers team, but now he also has a chance to bypass the Wild Card Round entirely and skip straight to a home playoff game at Lambeau Field in the Divisional Round. 

While it’s still too soon to compare Za’Darius Smith to the likes of Reggie White or Charles Woodson, early returns would indicate that Smith could be Gutekunst’s gem, just like Wolf and Thompson each had their guys before him. 

Smith has been quoted saying he wants to be a Green Bay Packer for the rest of his career, and I think it’s pretty safe to say that Packers fans want the same thing. While I stand by the fact that Gutekunst hit on all four 2019 free agents, and Preston Smith (who also is super deserving of love/praise for his share in turning around this defense), Adrian Amos, and Billy Turner are all playing really well for Green Bay, there’s no denying how much Za’Darius Smith has come in and immediately changed the dynamic of this Packers team.

 

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Maggie Loney is a writer for Cheesehead TV, podcaster for the Pack-A-Day Podcast and Pack's What She Said, and hosts a weekly live show called Happy Hour through Game On Wisconsin. Find her on Twitter at @MaggieJLoney.

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Comments (54)

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Cubbygold's picture

December 27, 2019 at 06:02 am

Z is a man among boys. He just flat out beats people down. That move where he just punched the vikings LT in his shoulder, stunned him, and shot past...thing of beauty.

Pettine deserves a lot of credit too, he turned Fackrell into a 10 sack player at age 27, this year he's turning the smiths into monsters. Just 6 months ago their contracts were seen as too large and examples of free agency excess. Now they're steals at that price.

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Christian Roussel's picture

December 27, 2019 at 07:46 am

Pettine yes but a lot goes to Mike Smith this year. Not only the sacks, but the guys are playing heads up OLB, setting the edge effectively and dropping.

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Cubbygold's picture

December 27, 2019 at 09:24 am

Absolutely

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NickPerry's picture

December 27, 2019 at 09:38 am

YES, YES, YES, to giving Mike Smith credit. For YEARS the Packers OLB and ILB by Moss who IMO couldn't carry the jocks of Smith and Olivadotti let alone coach like them.

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Crackerpacker's picture

December 27, 2019 at 12:53 pm

Speaking on behalf of Moss I'd just like to say " I can't help you ".

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Rak47's picture

December 28, 2019 at 06:02 am

If this season had been a race to see who the best FA signing was over 16 games I would say Preston Smith won the first half of the race with Z close behind and closing. Then Z turned on the after burners and left everyone in the dust. Although Amos and Turner both have played well also, so it is really hard to say who the next best signing is after Z. But Z definitely out perfomed all expectations by a wide mile.

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Doug_In_Sandpoint's picture

December 27, 2019 at 08:38 am

Great job Petine and/or Mike Smith. It seems like with multiple players able to rush the QB, they are dropping both Preston and Fackrell I to coverage a bunch more with Martinez a bit deeper in the middle. I’m not sure if it is related or not but the incidence of receivers wide open across the middle has decreased a lot this year. The last few years I bet the slant vs. our D was the easiest play in all sports.

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Turophile's picture

December 27, 2019 at 06:17 am

At the time it happened (ie without 20/20 rear-view vision), I loved the idea of abandoning the recent tendency of getting older players with maybe just a bit left in the tank for younger guys at the top end of the veteran FA group.

Zadarius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Preston cost a great big chunk of money, yes, but unlike the Bears with the Mack deal, they didn't have to lose premium draft picks to upgrade their team. There is a bit of luck involved that the veteran acquisitions have played so well, but good GMs tend to be lucky (and as the old saying goes, the harder they work, the luckier they get). Z.Smith and P.Smith have transformed the pass rush compared to last years Clay Matthews and Nick Perry.

It is very unlikely there will be more than one big(ish) veteran FA signing in 2020 (if that), but there doesn't really need to be, the best work was what was done last offseason. Sure the Packers could do with another good DL, an ILB, no.2 WR, TE, but there isn't an NFL team without holes. There shouldn't be many key losses after this season (I expect Bulaga to be re-signed and Kenny Clark to get a new deal sometime). ILB might be a real problem if Martinez signs elsewhere, but the Packers problems are less than those of many other teams.

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Bearmeat's picture

December 27, 2019 at 06:55 am

I think Bulaga, Fackrell and Martinez will leave in FA and this will net us 2 3rds and a 4th in the 2021 draft. I think we cut Graham and Taylor. There will be enough cap room to sign maybe not a top tier FA, but a higher end one. I'm personally hoping for a WR AND a HWS monster in the first 2 days of the draf. The team needs more weapons.

I was really excited for Z, P and Amos coming into the year. Turner... I was a little surprised at how well they paid him, but there was no doubt he was an upgrade at RG.

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Big_Mel_75's picture

December 27, 2019 at 09:20 am

Who do you have replacing Bulaga? I don't see an issue with the other two. I just don't see another option for Bulaga currently.

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jannes bjornson's picture

December 27, 2019 at 04:33 pm

I like to the idea of keeping Bulaga around, but this draft class is loaded with OT talent into the second round. If he wants ALL PRO money they will let him walk and not miss a beat with a guy coming from this draft class. If Bulaga stays,
the attention can move to drafting a blue chip WR and a cover ILB in the early rounds. If Taylor fell to the late first round, I would move up to bag him.

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Rak47's picture

December 28, 2019 at 06:08 am

I agree. Someone on another thread said that's why Gute brought in Veldheer, but I disagree with that. It doesn't make sense to replace a 30 year old Tackle with an injury history with a 32 year old Tackle with an injury history. I don't think Veldheer was brought in to replace Bulaga but rather as insurance in case bidding for Bulaga's services get too high and GB Has to let him walk. I think however Gute will make an attempt to resign Bulaga imho.
If they can't resign Bulaga they will insert Veldheer and probably draft a Tackle fairly high.

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ShooterMcGee's picture

December 27, 2019 at 06:55 am

After playing the Bears I thought that their backup ILB Nick Kwiatowski would be a good fa pick up. He played well.and shouldn't be as expensive as Blake. Then we draft another ILB and a WR in the early rounds next year. I also wonder if Veldeer was signed as insurance for Bulaga not returning. He could be a good replacement. Really not that many holes to fill on our roster.

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flackcatcher's picture

December 27, 2019 at 07:28 am

Packers have had a hole at both backup tackle positions since the beginning of the season, and with the loss of Taylor there was no one who could swing at both spots. Signing Veldeer ate up cap that Gute was saving, but closed a hole with the playoffs coming. Beyond that, only the Packer GM knows...

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fordguy's picture

December 27, 2019 at 02:59 pm

" I also wonder if Veldeer was signed as insurance for Bulaga not returning." Do you even know that he came out of retirement to sign with the Packers and he's 2 years older then Bulaga. How in the hell would he be a good replacement?

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Adorabelle's picture

December 27, 2019 at 05:09 pm

Does the other news of Rodgers restructure of his bonus and freeing up 11mill to the salary cap change the ability and/or the level of who they can sign in 2020?

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murf7777's picture

December 27, 2019 at 07:13 am

I was skeptical when the packers spent all that money on 4 long term contracts. Certainly, like the draft it is a crap shoot or 50/50 prop. Yes, you have more info on a player in FA, but players many times play better in the scheme or with other great players. when they have to perform as being the “one” they fail to produce and you are left with a SC killing contract. Kirk Cousins is an example, good but not great but paid as great upon his contract signing. There are more examples of losing on the deal then winning in FA.

Other than Turner, who isn’t a bust by any means the signings are working out as planned and even better in Z’s case.

Cudo’s to Gutey and the Coaches.

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stockholder's picture

December 27, 2019 at 07:15 am

Smith is like a hungry animal. Terrific Article.

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Jonathan Spader's picture

December 27, 2019 at 09:03 am

The difference is Maggie wrote the article AFTER the Zadarius signing. A commentor named Stockholder wanted Gute to sign Zadarius over Dee Ford, Clowney, etc. Then went on to say if we were really lucky Gute could sign both Smiths. Good call Stock.

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stockholder's picture

December 27, 2019 at 12:00 pm

Thanks- Your Sharp!

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murf7777's picture

December 27, 2019 at 07:19 am

I know Murphy isn’t a favorite on this board as he has been chastised for many things including his structuring of power. I was one defending him and was also down voted for that support of him. He alone made the decision to place Gutey and others into their positions and it has worked. Cudo’s should go out to Murphy for job well done.

Companies and sport franchises succeed and fail from the top down so let’s give credit where it is due.

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flackcatcher's picture

December 27, 2019 at 07:37 am

Sorry murf777 your flat out wrong on this one. Murphy tried to keep Gute from being selected for the GM position in Green Bay. It took the executive committee signing Gute. They overruled Murphy. Let's not forget that. Someday, why Murphy worked so hard not to hire a GM will come out. When it does, it will not reflect well on the tenure of Mark Murphy, president of the Green Bay Packers.

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murf7777's picture

December 27, 2019 at 07:57 am

Flack.... I’m not aware of that over ruling of Murphy’s desires, how do you know this is true?

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flackcatcher's picture

December 28, 2019 at 10:14 am

Public record murf. Both Bob Harlan, former president of the Packers and Gute himself confirmed how Gute was hired, and the background with Jason Wilde on his radio show last summer. Also ESPN and the MJS had interviewed both Harlan and Gute on the record over Gute's hiring. The story it self is down right crazy, but it shows how nuts Murphy had become, and why Gute needed to be hired...

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fordguy's picture

December 27, 2019 at 03:18 pm

And it was also Murphy who had to stick his nose into LaFleur getting the special teams coach he wanted but Murphy ended up costing the team getting the better coach. Fire the dictator Murphy he doesn't own the Packers.

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jannes bjornson's picture

December 27, 2019 at 04:40 pm

Murphy was pushing his guy, russ Ball for the job. McCarthy revolted on that line of thinking and Murphy back-tracked. Praise the Lord, low-ball was not put in command. He did a good job with the real estate deals, and tax-free zones,but he can move on now and 1265 Lombardi Ave would not miss a beat. Policy lurking in the weeds for the president title. Andrew Brandt still a sharp guy in the NFL. Ted drove him off.

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Houndog's picture

December 27, 2019 at 07:55 am

I would have to guess that you're giving Murphy the "credit" for the past 7 years as well? Dumping guys like Hayward, Hyde, Woodson, and Jordy Nelson just to name a few. Murphy did this, it starts at the top, right?
He's the guy that decided to surpass good free agents or make trades that could have helped win another SB or two with Rodgers still in his prime, right?
OK then, I agree!

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murf7777's picture

December 27, 2019 at 07:53 am

Hounddog....you can cherry pick info all you want to try and build a case. The reality is you can’t keep all players due to SC constraints. You keep player “A” you have to let player “B” go. Nobody makes all decisions correct in hindsight.

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Houndog's picture

December 27, 2019 at 08:07 am

Oh, C'mon murf,
You're the guy giving him all the Kudos, he's got to take the blame too, you're the guy saying "It Starts at the Top".

For years he completely ignored the football operations in his efforts to tout himself making the Packers real estate moguls, riding around on a bus singing Kumbaya with his hand-picked group during the summer months.

Let me know when you hear his name mentioned alongside Bob Harlan at any of the NFL meetings, then I'll start to listen.

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murf7777's picture

December 27, 2019 at 08:13 am

Good point Houndog, Harlan was a great leader....maybe I’m just enamored by the name:). Time will tell, many great leaders had an ultra ego.

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Houndog's picture

December 27, 2019 at 08:26 am

Thanks Murf.
Harlan was an Icon and a career Packer in his two stints.
He belongs right next to Lombardi when it comes to turning this franchise around, the difference being that neither of those guys were present during lengthy downfalls, Murphy was!
About you being enamored with the name, I won't touch that. :)

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jannes bjornson's picture

December 27, 2019 at 04:45 pm

Not so much salary cap constraints as mis-managed CAP with large deals given to Perry and three WRs instead of the replacement games they yapped about, draft and develop for others. The no offers to Hyde and Julius. The fail on the Ahmad Brooks contract. Over-pay to Taylor as the Sitton "replacement". etc.

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Lphill's picture

December 27, 2019 at 07:25 am

I am good with the Smiths, I wish Clay had a decent partner , I like watching him on the Rams still flying around he had a good game against the 49 ers, but the Smiths are the future I think moving forward we see Z Smith rushing from the middle with Gary progressing , that’s pretty scary with Clark in the mix.

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murf7777's picture

December 27, 2019 at 08:09 am

Lphill.....Along with Woodson, Clay was one of my favorite all time Packer and hated to see him go. As Greene said during the SB game “it is time” might be the right answer for letting him go. My reasons are because I think with the two Smiths we have a much stronger front 7 then if we kept Matthews and Perry. I would say the pressures are equal or better but the setting of the edge is much stronger now. With the 4 FA signings it would’ve been tough on the cap to keep MAtthews. I miss him and love his time with the Packers.

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wildbill's picture

December 27, 2019 at 10:45 am

Loved Clay also, and happy for him having a good year, but it’s been proven that it’s better to get rid of a guy a year early rather than a year late. If we kept Clay do we not sign Preston Smith? Clay May have another decent year or two but would be regressing while Smith has not only played great but is on an upward path.

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jannes bjornson's picture

December 27, 2019 at 04:53 pm

P.Smith controls the EDGE better and moves better than Clay in Coverage nowadays. CMII is the designated pass rusher for Wade Phillips. Donald and Fowler take the double teams, so he can go psycho with his rushes. If he drops in zone or man coverage he is exposed as he was in GB due to losing range of motion.

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Houndog's picture

December 27, 2019 at 07:36 am

Good article Maggie, and you nailed it, "Z" is a great addition and should help us for years.
I have to admit when I first saw the title without reading the article I was prepared to argue a bit.
For now we can hope he winds up with the likes of White and Woodson in Packers' history, he's certainly started in that direction and looked nearly unstoppable on Monday night. Let's hope he keeps it going, we could use another HOFer (along with Leroy Butler) in Canton.

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DragonSilk's picture

December 27, 2019 at 07:44 am

I love the sacks of course, but I also love his play against the run. That's what makes him so valuable. The replay of him stuffing Boone 3 yards deep was awesome. Great view of him peering through the blockers then threading through and hammering the RB for a loss.

Also nice article Maggie. Nothing wrong with tooting your own horn when you've got the print to back it up.

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scoonie_penn's picture

December 27, 2019 at 08:18 am

Z and Amos have both been home runs as FA's. P Smith has been very good but not great. Turner is better than last year's revolving door at RG but I still don't think he's the answer. Overall Gute did an excellent job. If he can stack another good FA signing and a great draft GB should continue to ascend

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Jonathan Spader's picture

December 27, 2019 at 09:08 am

What would it take to make P Smith "great"? I think he's had a hell of a year in 2019.

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wildbill's picture

December 27, 2019 at 10:57 am

Couldn’t agree more, if not for Z we would be gushing over P

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wildbill's picture

December 27, 2019 at 10:57 am

Couldn’t agree more, if not for Z we would be gushing over P

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Jonathan Spader's picture

December 27, 2019 at 08:42 pm

Phrasing...

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LeotisHarris's picture

December 27, 2019 at 08:27 am

Great work again, Maggie. I love Z's leadership both on and off the field. This may not be a popular take, but I'll put it out there. If you watch the video of his traffic stop in Racine County, you can see Z's surprise when the officer finds the vape and weed cartridge. It's clear he didn't know either Gary of Keke had it in the backseat, but he takes the rap for those younger players ("that's on me, Sir"). He even admits to having smoked earlier, which while probably not the smartest admission, conveyed honesty and respect to the police officer. Veteran leader and solid teammate.

Zs's combination of swagger and menace reminds me of Wayne Simmons. While White and Dotson et al were dominant, it was Simmons who brought that mean-spirited tone to the D. That's contagious. Go Pack!

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jannes bjornson's picture

December 27, 2019 at 05:00 pm

Thanks for the shout out to Wayne Simmons. The voice of the SB defense. The start of Wolf's misses when Wayne was not re-signed. Denver ran all over them the following SB.

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Houndog's picture

December 27, 2019 at 09:18 am

Thanks Murf.
Sorry for the post, was meant as a reply.

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NickPerry's picture

December 27, 2019 at 10:05 am

All I know if Gute doesn't deserve and IS NAMED Executive of the Year there is something terribly wrong with that. Not only has Z. Smith and P. Smith FIXED the OLB position and pass rush, BOTH players hold the edge in the run game extremely well. We already knew Preston Smith was a good run defender when he got here but Za'Darius Smith has been just as good if not better against the run.

This year the Packers have FAR exceeded any expectations I had for them. If they win the SB I'll obviously be in heaven. But if they don't I have next year to look forward too when IMO this team will REALLY jell. This Defense is going to be GREAT for the next few years and better than this years "Good". Za'Darius Smith is a huge reason for this as are all the FA signings.

Thank You GUTE!!

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wildbill's picture

December 27, 2019 at 10:54 am

As some have stated, the locker room presence that Z has brought to the Packers is the icing on the cake. When you command respect both on and off the field that shows the true measure of the man. Taking the hit in the traffic stop is exactly the “big brother” protection that shows he puts other people first. He is now my favorite Packer player currently playing!(nobody takes Bart and Ray from my top)

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Ferrari-Driver's picture

December 27, 2019 at 11:03 am

These four certainly beat the signing of the highly touted "Joe Johnson" of years past.

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TheVOR's picture

December 27, 2019 at 11:06 am

Dude isa beast. When they signed both, I watched all the footage I could. I said at that time I thought we got 2 great players, and I personally leaned towards Z-dog as the guy I thought would have an amazing upside for us. Preston has in fact exceeded my expectations a bit as well. It's interesting, once Preston hit 10 sacks, I think the attention was shifted to him, only to have the Z-dog start dominating. The end all scenario, is that these guys terrifically benefit from the other. What a great place to be. Super stoked for the Packers, great acquisitions.

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jeremyjjbrown's picture

December 27, 2019 at 11:46 am

Hard to believe 5 Free Agent signings could have helped out the Packers so much.

The Smiths, Turner, Amos and Clinton-Dix.

The Bears signing HaHa REALLY helped the Packers.

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Since'61's picture

December 27, 2019 at 12:11 pm

This team desperately needed a new group of core players. Z. Smith is at the forefront of that new core. Our new core group includes Z and Preston Smith, Amos, Savage, Alexander, King, Martinez and Kenny Clark on defense. Twill is one of the few left from the old core on defense.

On offense we now have Aaron Jones, J. Williams, Linsley, Jenkins and Turner combined with the older core players of Rodgers, Adams, Bak and Bulaga. We only need a TE and 2 more WRs to fill out the receiving corp on this team. A backup QB who can actually play would be nice as well.

Gute has done an excellent job of rebuilding the core of this team in just 2 seasons as GM. Including our new punter and LS. Also, while maybe not core players Fackrell, Lowry and now Lazard are emerging as key role players. We have needed better players for years and now we are finally getting them. Go Pack Go! Go Get the #1 seed. Thanks, Since '61

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KneelYoung's picture

December 27, 2019 at 12:14 pm

Liked your post except for the past of martinez being a part of the "new" core. IMHO he is not core. Needs an upgrade. His resigning will be in the $8 million or more area which would be insane. Not sure who will be there next year but strongly speculating it will not be Blake. ILB needs an upgrade .

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KneelYoung's picture

December 27, 2019 at 12:10 pm

Exciting times in Green Bay. The stodginess of the prior regime has been dusted off and youth with athleticism have become the new tenants. Great, great acquisition of Zadarius Smith. Leadership and intangibles of the team gathering activities he has hosted are growing a new camaraderie. P. Smith as his bookend makes me smile.
Way to go Gutey.

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