Should the Packers Sign Free Agent OLB Preston Smith?
In a March 5 column, The Athletic Wisconsin’s Michael Cohen reported the Packers are “expected to be involved in conversations” with free agent pass rusher Preston Smith.
The Washington Redskins selected Smith in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, eight picks after Green Bay chose defensive back Damarious Randall.
After four seasons with the Redskins, he is set to be one of the top available pass rushers in free agency. The Packers and general manager Brian Gutekunst continue to be more active than previous years, but will Smith’s expected annual salary between $10 to $16 million be too rich for Green Bay?
Smith’s expected average annual salary would place him among a group of five current Packers who earn as much – wide receiver Davante Adams ($14.5 million), left tackle David Bakhtiari ($12 million), outside linebacker Nick Perry ($12 million), defensive end Mike Daniels ($10.3 million), and tight end Jimmy Graham ($10 million).
Let’s make the case for and against Green Bay signing the soon-to-be free agent pass rusher, and finish with a careful examination of the source behind Cohen’s report.
The case for the Packers signing free agent Preston Smith
Read enough tweets, blog posts and columns about Smith and three points keep appearing:
He’s yet to miss a game in four seasons.
He’s recorded 24.5 sacks in his career.
He’d have more sacks, but Washington used him in a rotation and he dropped into coverage often.
Statistically, Smith’s 2017 campaign was his finest. He started all sixteen games, recorded eight sacks, and intercepted two passes – all career-highs.
In 2018, however, his first sack of the season came in Washington’s ninth game. In October, Smith spoke about the frustration around the fervor surrounding sacks.
"I think it’s unfair that people only think about sacks for my position," said Smith. "I get pissed off about not getting sacks, but it’s also, I drop in coverage a lot too. My responsibilities are more than just rushing the quarterback. So I mean, I impact the game in multiple ways than just rushing the quarterback. But people don’t see that, they just want outside linebacker, edge rush, they just want me to get sacks. It’s frustrating at times, it’s a long season. We’ve only played five games and I’ve been close in every game."
Those who have scouted Smith throughout his career are quick to label him as consistent and versatile – two traits any NFL team wants from their players. Pro Football Focus considers him to be one of the game’s best linebackers in a 3-4 defense – last year, the service rated him as the league’s eighth-best at his position.
The case against the Packers signing free agent Preston Smith
One of our favorite advanced stats at The Power Sweep is production ratio. It measures the impact plays (sacks and tackles for loss) a pass rusher makes against the number of games he plays (for an example, check out Clay Matthew’s production ratio throughout his career).
The higher the production ratio, the better. A ratio over 1.5 represents a very good, even elite player – just 25 defenders last year league-wide were at or above a 1.5 production ratio for the 2018 season. These defenders are making one or two drive-changing plays – a tackle for loss on a running play or a sack – per game. As with all analytics, keep in mind that production ratio is a tool, not the tool.
Smith’s production ratio was a career-low 0.56 last season – that would have ranked fifth on the 2018 Packers behind Kyler Fackrell (1.41), Kenny Clark (1.08), Blake Martinez (0.94), and Clay Matthews (0.66).
Here’s how Smith’s career production ratio looks when compared to three Packers pass rushers – Fackrell, Matthews and Nick Perry:
Across his four years in the league, Smith is one of 38 defenders to record at least 24.5 sacks and 29 tackles for loss. His four-year production ratio of 0.84 ranks 38th out of 38:
If you expand the criteria to 20 sacks and 20 tackles for loss over the last four years, Smith ranks 56th out of 57 pass rushers.
Many of the pass rushers will never be available through free agency in the prime of their careers, however. Smith, along with a handful of other top-end pass rushers, will be available. Here’s how Smith’s production ratio compares to Za’Darius Smith, Dante Fowler, and Dee Ford.
If Green Bay’s front office is interested in Smith, they have a resource on their new coaching staff. Inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti has been on Washington’s defensive staff for all four years Smith has been with the team.
Smith struggled at times with the Redskins. Veteran defensive lineman Jason Hatcher was with Washington in Smith’s rookie season and called the linebacker “[dang] lazy.” His draft profile on NFL.com suggested Smith was “nothing too special,” but “when studying tape long enough, you see traits and potential.”
The teams who leverage free agency the best pay not for past performance, but for expected future results. Traits and potential are critical, and Smith has done enough to show he has used his potential to evolve as a pass rusher. Whether the Packers feel he has more room to grow to warrant the investment is the multi-million dollar question.
The role of Smith’s agent, Rodney Edwards
Finally, it’s important to consider the source. Either Cohen is hearing this information from Smith’s agent, Rodney Edwards, or from someone in the Packers’ front office.
Former Packers salary cap expert Andrew Brandt described the combine as “a convention for NFL business, with every team contract negotiator and every agent in close proximity” today for Sports Illustrated. Edwards’ job is to get his client the biggest, baddest contract in town. That means connecting as many teams to Smith as possible and generating multiple offers.
Consider a March 1 report by ESPN’s Rich Cimini that the Jets might be interested in Smith. Around the same time Cohen’s post was released, ESPN’s Turron Davenport brought Smith up as a top edge defender. On March 4, an NBC Sports reporter who covers the Redskins, JP Finlay, said Smith is the “best edge guy in free agency.”
That makes Smith’s agent, Edwards, the most likely source of the information. Based out of Mississippi, Edwards represents former Mississippi State players like Smith. He even follows a handful of Twitter accounts associated with the Packers.
Packers lead negotiator Russ Ball has experience negotiating with Edwards, most notably defensive linemen Josh Boyd (also out of Mississippi State) and Khyri Thornton.