Let's talk about the Packers' Za'Darius Smith conundrum
The Packers will have a difficult time achieving their goals for 2021 without Za'Darius Smith, whose back injury could force him to miss Week 1 and potentially trouble him even longer.
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In most respects, the Green Bay Packers will begin the 2021 regular season in an enviable position.
Despite a long offseason of drama centered on quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his desire to leave Green Bay, he reported to training camp on time and has performed exactly as one would expect from the reigning MVP. The other teams within the NFC North have either just begun a complete teardown (the Detroit Lions), plan to open the season with a pedestrian starter under center rather than his more talented rookie understudy (the Chicago Bears), or have put themselves at heightened risk for prolonged player absences due to the lowest vaccination rate in the NFL (the Minnesota Vikings). At least at the outset, arguably no team has a clearer path to a division crown than the Packers.
Of course, not everything has come up roses for Green Bay. All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari will begin the regular season on the physically unable to perform list and miss at least the first six weeks. Partially as a result, the identity of the starting offensive line remains somewhat uncertain, with rookie Royce Newman, veteran Lucas Patrick, and second-year pro Jon Runyan Jr. all vying for a job. And the cornerback depth behind Jaire Alexander remains either untested or unreliable.
But all those issues have potential solutions. Bakhtiari will come off the PUP list barring a setback. That return will move Elgton Jenkins, currently sitting in at left tackle, back to guard and stabilize the interior. In the secondary, Kevin King will either perform like a starter or give way to 2021 first-round pick Eric Stokes.
However, another, potentially larger problem faces the Packers, one that presents no obvious answer: the health of outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith.
With less than two weeks before the Packers kick off their season against the New Orleans Saints, Smith's availability for the game remains entirely unclear. A back injury forced the Pro Bowl pass rusher on the non-football injury list at the start of training camp and, outside of a few practices in the middle of August, he has remained on the sidelines. Though the team didn't express much concern during the initial weeks of camp, the tenor changed when Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur first publicly acknowledged that Smith could miss Week 1.
"I'm not quite sure when we'll get 'Z' back," LaFleur said. "He's injured right now. I know he wants to be out there, but we're going to be smart with him. He's obviously a big-time player for us and, yeah, it definitely is a concern."
Little has changed in the nearly two weeks since, not even the language with which LaFleur tried to couch the discussion of Smith's health.
"I'd say he's up in the air," Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said with a tone of resignation on Wednesday. "But he is getting better on a daily basis, and he's really putting the time in. I trust our training crew — Flea and those guys — are doing an outstanding job with him. I think 'Z' wants to be out there. So, we're optimistic that potentially he'll be back out there sooner than later."
While the door technically remains open for Smith to return for the Sept. 12 opener, the Packers seem resigned to playing the Saints without him. The NFL's decision to move the game from New Orleans to Jacksonville in the wake of Hurricane Ida might offset some of the impact stemming from Smith's absence. Still, no good time exists for a football team to lose a premier pass rusher.
But the discussion around Smith should not focus solely on his return date. Even elite athletes can see their seasons unraveled by back injuries. Take J.J. Watt, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who never missed a game during his first five seasons in the league. In 2016, Watt underwent an offseason procedure for a herniated disc with the expectation of returning before Week 1. He achieved his goal, helping the Houston Texans topple the Bears in the season opener. However, the All-Pro defensive end aggravated his back a few weeks later, resulting in another surgery and ending his season before October.
Smith's injury doesn't appear as serious as Watt's, but bad backs typically become a condition to manage, not one from which the player fully recovers. That Smith already attempted a return only to suffer a setback soon thereafter underscores the fickle nature of the injury.
And while the Packers have other talented pass rushers, none has demonstrated Smith's versatility. Since joining the team in 2019, he has registered 25 snaps or more from 10 distinct defensive positions, according to Pro Football Focus. The majority of those snaps come at outside linebacker, but he routinely slides inside to the defensive line in obvious pass-rushing situations. Over a quarter of his defensive snaps have come in the trenches during the past two seasons counting playoff games.
None of the team's other pass rushers come close in that regard. Preston Smith, despite similar mass and length to Za'Darius Smith, barely played along the defensive interior in 2020 (just 25 snaps combined). Rashan Gary didn't see much work there last year either (47 snaps). The Packers will ask considerably more of both in Za'Darius Smith's absence with Jonathan Garvin, a 2020 seventh-round draft choice with exactly 85 regular-season snaps from scrimmage under his belt, playing a meaningful role for the first time.
And while Smith has participated in meetings during his absence from practice, his next full-contact rep in new defensive coordinator Joe Barry's system will be his first. The scheme places more responsibilities on the off-ball linebackers and safeties than the previous defense, which should make Smith's acclimation a little smoother upon his return. Still, the Packers surely envisioned their top pass rusher spending more time working within the new system before making his regular-season debut.
Ultimately, so much of Smith's situation will remain unknowable until he finally sees the field. Not every recovery from back problems looks the same, and players respond differently to treatment and maintenance work. Perhaps Smith battles with his back all season. Maybe he returns later in September with no obvious limitations resulting from the injury.
But the Packers don't yet have a firm grasp on Smith's outlook, and that should scare them. Rarely can a team lose a player of his magnitude for any duration without significant complications. The Packers have plenty going for them in 2021, but that doesn't mean they can afford to have their star pass rusher compromised — or worse, unavailable — over the long haul.