The Green Bay Packers remain more than $10 million over the salary cap with the deadline of the new league year looming in mid-March. One player many people felt may be let go by the Pack is edge rusher Preston Smith. But is that the best option for the team?
Here is an in-depth look at Preston Smith’s situation this offseason and what the Packers options are for him. We should know more about which option the Packers take in the coming weeks.
The Packers signed Preston Smith as a free agent before the 2019 season along with Za’Darius Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner. Preston had an immediate impact on the Green Bay defense in 2019 and enjoyed a career year. He finished the season with 12 sacks, 11 tackles for loss and 34 pressures while playing in all 16 games. He also helped turn around the atmosphere in the locker room along with fellow “Smith Brother,” Za’Darius, as the Packers reached the NFC Championship Game after missing the playoffs the previous two seasons.
But in 2020, Preston Smith struggled. With no OTAs and minicamp, he came to training camp but was not in optimum physical condition. He had to play himself into shape and this affected his early season performance. Through the first eight games of 2020, Preston had only a half sack and was often burned in coverage and slow to react to many running plays as well. His pass rush was inconsistent at best and he was unable to pressure opposing quarterbacks the way he did the previous campaign.
Once he got back into game shape, Preston’s play did pick up in the second half of the season. He had 3.5 sacks in the final eight games and finished the year with four sacks, seven tackles for loss and 16 quarterback pressures. All these numbers were well off from the 2019 pace Preston had established.
The fact that Rashan Gary was threatening to take over as the starter certainly served as extra motivation.
Preston has been inconsistent throughout his career. He seems to play well in odd numbered years and struggle more in even seasons. His best seasons have come in 2015 (eight sacks), 2017 (eight sacks) and 2019 (12 sacks). In even seasons, his production was off. He recorded 4.5 sacks in 2016, four sacks in 2018 and four sacks in 2020. Obviously, 2021 is an odd numbered year which bodes well for Preston if he continues to follow the pattern.
Preston Smith’s present contract runs through the end of the 2022 season. For 2021, he has a base salary of $6.85 million but with all his bonus money, the cap hit will reach $16 million. If the Packers release Preston, they will save $8 million but will also have $8 million in dead money counting against the 2021 cap.
If the Packers release Preston Smith, they will also need to draft and/or sign another edge rusher. They would not have enough proven depth at the position behind Za’Darius Smith and Gary. Obviously, if either of the top two edge rushers were unavailable due to injury, the pass rush would take a significant hit and the team’s ability to run their usual defense may be compromised.
So how to the Packers proceed from here? One option is to release Preston and use the $8 million that they would save to help purchase another edge rusher. Most fans seem to prefer Wisconsin native J.J. Watt, but he is likely out of the Packers price range. Either way, if they let Preston Smith go, they will need to add somebody to bolster the pass rush. The odds are that they will add somebody relatively early in the draft and they will also sign a mid-priced free agent.
The second option is to keep Preston Smith’s contract the way it is and hope his pattern continues and he has a strong season in an odd-numbered year. Even forgetting his past performances, the Packers simply need Preston to return to a form approximating what he did in 2019. If he does that, Green Bay will have three reliable edge rushers on the roster plus whatever they add in the draft or via free agency.
The team will also hope that young players like Jonathan Garvin or Randy Ramsey can make a big improvement as they gain experience and can become reliable contributors on the edge in 2021.
The third option is to approach Preston Smith and his agent and discuss reworking his present contract. The Packers could offer to extend Smith and convert some of his salary to signing bonus. Preston Smith could get more money up front and the Packers could lower his 2021 cap hit while keeping a player who was a big contributor just one year ago.
There are several reasons Preston Smith may accept this offer. First, it appears he enjoys playing in Green Bay. He likes his teammates and has been a positive influence in the locker room.
The Packers have also been successful while Preston has been there. In two years, the Packers have won 26 regular-season games and lost only six while going to the NFC Championship Game both years. If Aaron Rodgers stays healthy this year, they should be contenders again in 2021.
Finally, the free agent market for non-star veterans will not be as lucrative this season because of the reduction in the salary cap. Teams will always find a way to add All Pro players via free agency, but the so-called “middle class” like Preston Smith will get squeezed as teams struggle to get under the smaller cap which had to be cut because of the loss of ticket revenue due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Packers could end up paying Preston Smith less money, offer him more incentives in his contract and Preston could still earn more money than he would be able to sign for if he hit the free agent market. That would be a win-win for both player and team.
In the next few weeks, Packers GM Brian Gutekunst will explore all these possibilities. Hopefully, the Packers can find a way to keep Preston Smith and free up some cap space while still adding good players to improve the team this offseason.
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