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Packers LB Preston Smith excited for long-awaited return to Washington 

Veteran linebacker returns to FedExField for the first time Sunday

LB Preston Smith
LB Preston Smith

GREEN BAY – As Preston Smith can attest, there isn't always time for goodbyes in the National Football League.

After a fruitful four-year run in Washington, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound linebacker's first and only foray into free agency resulted in Smith leaving for Green Bay in March 2019.

A second-round pick in 2015, Smith recorded 168 tackles, 59 quarterback hits and 24½ sacks while playing in all 64 regular-season games (50 starts) with Washington.

Following the 2018 season, the Packers justifiably rewarded Smith for his production with a long-term contract but there were more than just fond memories he left behind in D.C.

"I don't think I went back to even move out of my house," recalled Smith on Thursday. "I just called the moving company had them move my stuff. My wife, she was there. But after the season ended, I left, and I never came back."

Until this weekend.

Sunday's matchup with the Commanders marks Smith's first trip back to FedExField since Washington hosted Philadelphia in its 2018 regular-season finale.

Since then, Smith has developed into one of the pillars of Green Bay's defense, tallying 155 tackles, 60 QB hits and 28½ sacks in 54 regular-season games.

Smith has played Washington before. He had a sack and three quarterbacks hits in a 20-15 Packers victory on Dec. 8, 2019, but that game was played at Lambeau Field. Finally going back to FedExField brings with it some nostalgia.

"I had so many great memories there in D.C.," Smith said. "I'm excited to go back and see what it's like. Probably go to a nice restaurant, get something to eat with some of my teammates, and play in the stadium where it all started for me, my NFL career."

Coming out of Mississippi State, Smith was widely considered one of the top pass rushers in the 2015 NFL Draft following a nine-sack senior season in which he also intercepted two passes.

Looking for reinforcements at outside linebacker behind Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy, Washington was sold on Smith as a developmental prospect and the young linebacker fit right in. As the No. 3 outside linebacker, Smith had eight sacks and three forced fumbles his rookie season.

Coincidentally, Smith's first defensive coordinator in the NFL also happens to be his current one: Joe Barry, who led Washington's defense during Smith's initial two pro seasons.

"He's what an outside rusher, a defensive end is supposed to look like," Barry said. "He's got all the attributes as far as the length, the size. But then he has the athleticism, he has the change of direction. … Obviously he's improved in all those things, being the veteran that he is now (but) when he came out, he was really the complete package. He had everything that we wanted."

Smith only has a handful of former teammates still on the Commanders, but three to whom he's closest – Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat – are still prime playmakers on Washington's highly regarded defensive front.

Allen, Payne and Sweat are all former first-round picks. Allen arrived two years after Smith, while Payne was drafted during Smith's final season in Washington in 2018.

Smith and Sweat, both Mississippi State alums, didn't play together in the pros or college but were teammates at Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., when Smith was a senior and Sweat was a freshman.

The three Washington defensive linemen are off to a torrid start, combining for 66 tackles, 29 quarterback hits and 10 sacks through six games.

"It's a bunch of guys that play relentless," Smith said. "I just know those guys play hard through the end of the game. They're going to play through the whistle. They're going to fly around and try to do whatever it takes to make a play for their team."

The Packers pack a punch up front, too. Smith currently leads the defense with nine QB hits to go with his 3½ sacks, while Rashan Gary is tied for second in the NFL with six sacks.

Green Bay's defense ranks fifth in total yards (299.2 yards per game) and first against the pass (164.0 yards per game) but the main issue has been establishing consistency and generating takeaways. Green Bay has been sitting on four the past two weeks. Only Washington and Las Vegas have fewer takeaways (three).

"We've been having a lot of good first halves and the start. We've just got to finish strong in the second half," Smith said. "Any opportunity we get, we've got to maximize it. If there's a tip or overthrow or the ball's on the ground, we've got to make sure we're the guys that come up with it."

This Sunday, the Commanders are turning to backup QB Taylor Heinicke after Carson Wentz fractured a finger on his throwing hand during Washington's 12-7 win over Chicago.

Heinicke threw for 268 yards and scrambled for another 95 during the Packers' 24-10 win over Washington last October. It remains the only game Smith has missed in his NFL career after a quad injury sidelined the 29-year-old pass rusher for one week.

Now, the stage is finally set for Smith's return to Washington. As much as he's looking forward to greeting old friends, Smith wants to leave FedExField with the Packers' fourth win of 2022.

"It's always great to see friends no matter what team they're on but especially when it's a team you came from," Smith said. "You still have a lot of memories and guys from that team that you play with. It's always good to go out there and play against those guys … and compete against them."