GREEN BAY – Za’Darius and Preston Smith go back.
All the way back to when Za’Darius was playing junior college football at East Mississippi in 2012 and Preston was an emerging defensive end at Mississippi State.
Za’Darius, lightly recruited after first playing football as a high school senior, met Preston during his campus visit to Starkville and then became better acquainted with his new Packers teammate at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine a few years later.
The Smiths spent a lot of time together given their shared last name, and before leaving for their final draft prep, Preston offered a prediction for what was to come.
“He was like, ‘Z, we’re going to do great things in this league,’” Za’Darius said. “I kid you not. And now we’re playing together.”
To this point, Preston appears to be onto something with his forecast of their NFL career arc. Coincidentally, the two traded well-wishes before the start of free agency and prior to their reuniting in Green Bay on long-term deals this week.
Both only 26 years old, the Smiths figure to be key building blocks for the Packers’ edge rush under second-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
A second-round pick in 2015, Preston racked up 168 tackles and 24½ sacks in Washington the past four seasons. A three-year starter, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound linebacker hasn’t missed an NFL game. Pressed about the last time he was forced to sit due to injury, Preston couldn’t come up with one.
“It’s pretty easy to get hurt in such a violent sport,” said Preston, who also didn’t miss a game during his three years as a starter for Mississippi State. “I try to take care of my body week in and week out and make sure I take the right steps to make sure that I can play on Sunday and that I’m healthy enough to be out there for my team each and every week.”
As a rookie, Preston had his breakthrough performance at the Packers’ expense, earning a sack and safety early in Green Bay’s NFC Wild Card playoff game in Washington.
It was his sixth sack in four games. He finished the regular season with eight sacks in both 2015 and 2017, along with having at least one interception in each of the past three seasons.
“I feel like I have a great combination of speed and length and power,” Preston said. “So I can mix my game up. I can beat you around the edge with speed, I can power through you. I’ve got inside moves, I feel like. And I feel like I have a lot of different moves to go out there and be effective.”
The dawning of the age of Za’Darius has been years in the making. Drafted out of Kentucky in 2015 to help Baltimore replace Pernell McPhee, Smith has learned from the likes of Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Elvis Dumervil and Eric Weddle.
The 6-foot-4, 272-pounder notched 10 sacks as a rotational rusher during his first three seasons before posting career highs in both tackles (45) and sacks (8½) despite playing through a core muscle injury during the latter half of last season.
Now fully healthy, Za’Darius doesn’t view his 2018 season as a “jump” as much as putting all his skills together. He also was informed before the season he needed contact lenses, which he feels helped him in his pursuit of the quarterback.
Earlier this week, Za’Darius was awakened by a phone call from his agent, Bill Johnson, to inform him Green Bay likely would be his next NFL destination.
After hearing the terms of the deal, Za’Darius hopped in his car and drove 14 hours from Baltimore to Alabama to surprise his mom, Sharon, at work to ask, “(Are) you ready to quit working?”
She told her son that her bag was already packed.
“She works at the Butler County correctional facility,” Za’Darius said. “She’s been there for like 22 years, and she worked with a lot of inmates, so sometimes that can be a headache. To get there and see her, bags packed, it was a wonderful feeling to tell Mom she can quit working.”
Za’Darius’ welcome to the Packers began during his flight from Atlanta to Green Bay. After boarding, one of the flight attendants went on the intercom to tell passengers “they had a very special guest,” which was met with cheers and applause.
The Smiths had a chance to reconnect and reflect on the road they’ve traveled after signing their contracts with the Packers on Thursday.
While General Manager Brian Gutekunst isn’t shutting the door on Clay Matthews’ possible return, the Packers hope adding a pair of up-and-coming rushers to an outside linebacker room with Kyler Fackrell and Reggie Gilbert will help take their defense to the next level.
“We are both versatile players,” Preston said. “He can rush inside and outside. I can do the same, if needed. We both play fast and physical and violently. And I like his play style and I feel we will complement each other and we’re going to do some great things here in Green Bay.”