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The fire still burns inside Za'Darius Smith

Packers linebacker still carrying a chip on his shoulder into Year 3 in Green Bay

LB Za'Darius Smith
LB Za'Darius Smith

GREEN BAY – If there was ever a time for the chip to possibly fall off Za'Darius Smith's shoulder, you might have thought it would happen after a 2020 season in which the Packers linebacker was voted to the Pro Bowl and named All-Pro.

And you'd be wrong.

No, that external motivation still resides with Smith, even after the 6-foot-4, 272-pound linebacker has started to gain more recognition with his 26 sacks in over the past two seasons.

Following the third and final minicamp practice on Thursday, the question was posed to Smith about the first time he felt "snubbed" after being left off the initial Pro Bowl team in 2019.

The seventh-year veteran quickly interjected, with a wry smile and a shake of his head, to suggest that perceived snub remains very much in the present tense.

"2020? 2021? 2022? They just gonna continue to snub me," Smith said. "It is what it is. I feel like it adds fuel to the fire, and I'm going to continue to prove myself."

One factor likely contributing to those feelings was the list Pro Football Focus analyst Ben Linsey put out last month, ranking his top 10 edge defenders in the NFL. Smith was not included.

Smith screenshotted the graphic and posted it to his Instagram story to express his bewilderment. Outside linebackers coach Mike Smith hadn't heard about it until he spoke with the Green Bay media corps last week.

But knowing Za'Darius, there's little question in Coach Smith's mind that it amped up his linebacker's already high intensity level as the Packers entered the final leg of their offseason program.

"He sees something like that, it keeps him hungry," said Mike Smith recently. "Some guys, it's Super Bowls; some guys, it's money. Whatever it may be, you've got to find that whatever makes you tick and makes you (ticked) off. My dad used to say, 'You've got to find a reason to hate your opponent.' Sometimes you look for a reason."

Snubbed or not, Smith has been a wrecking ball in the Packers' defense since signing with Green Bay as an unrestricted free agent in March 2019. His 26 sacks are the most by a Packers player in his first two seasons with the team.

Smith, who added 12½ sacks last year to his 13½ from the previous season, was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after a three-sack performance against Atlanta last October, making him the only player in the league to register a three-sack game in each of the last three seasons.

Still, things will look a little different in 2020, with Joe Barry replacing Mike Pettine as coordinator. As much as Smith loved playing for Pettine, he has been impressed with Barry on both a personal and professional level.

One small thing Barry did that Smith appreciated was texting to introduce himself to the defensive leaders shortly after he was hired in February. While Smith preferred not to go into details about how he fits into Barry's scheme, the two-time Pro Bowler figures to again be a centerpiece of the Packers' defensive plans.

"He's definitely a disruptive force on the field," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "That's what we expect out of him, and he's done a great job. He needs to continue to help bring others along with him because if we can get everybody playing at his level, then I think we're going to have a pretty good defense."

Smith won't be alone, either, as his close friend, Preston Smith, and budding pass rusher, Rashan Gary, are also both back for a third season in Green Bay's outside linebacker room.

Preston Smith had been an active participant throughout the offseason program but is currently in the COVID-19 protocol. Once his fellow Smith Bro. is back, however, Za'Darius is excited for the possibilities in Barry's defense.

"'P' is a guy who is all in," Za'Darius said. "'P' is a guy to keep everybody going in the meeting rooms. When people are down, he's the guy that's keeping us laughing, man, and keeping us encouraged on and off the field. So, it'll be good to get 'P' back."

As far as personal motivation is concerned, the fire hasn't dimmed at all inside Za'Darius. And should the day come when the 28-year-old pass rusher needs an added spark, don't put it past his position coach to jump into the bulletin-board fray on social media.

"I'm probably playing favorites but I do think he's one of the best in the league and I think he's proven that the last couple years," Mike Smith said. "Maybe I'll get a fake account and start doing it myself and make stuff up there.

"Actually, don't record that. Don't tell him because I am going to do it; that's a great idea. 'Can you believe what they said about you today, Z? I cannot believe it.'"

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