On young Packers’ team, Preston Smith’s veteran leadership provides important element

By: Paul Bretl 7/2/24

Entering his 10th NFL season, Preston Smith has quickly become the veteran on this Green Bay Packers football team, which for the second year in a row, could be the youngest in the NFL. In fact, at soon-to-be 32 years old, Smith is the only player on the 91-man roster who is over 30.

“It’s always the goal of mine to make Year 10 and now that I’m here,” said Smith during minicamp, “it’s always a goal to just keep on chopping. Keep on chopping at the wood and making sure that I keep on doing what it takes to stay here and I keep on doing what it takes to reach my own personal goals and to make sure that — because I’m so close to a lot of ’em — and I got so many opportunities and I still feel like I got so much ball left in me.

“I feel like I got a lot of gas left in the tank and I still have an opportunity to make big plays and play for a long time in this league.”

Smith signed with the Packers during the 2019 offseason after spending his first four seasons with Washington. He was a part of a spending spree that GM Brian Gutekunst went on during free agency, where he also added Za’Darius Smith, Billy Turner, and Adrian Amos.

During his tenure with the Packers, which is now going on Year 6, Smith’s experience, along with the example he sets day-in and day-out, has put him in a leadership role, one that he very much embraces. Following the Packers’ playoff loss to San Francisco, it was Smith, while the team was still in the 49ers’ locker room, that set the tone for the upcoming months, describing what a “championship offseason” looked like.

As he does, Smith led by example. He was a regular member of the Packers’ voluntary offseason programs, which began back in mid-April, and is something that certainly isn’t required for a player going on his 10th NFL season.

“Man, any guy in this locker room will tell you Preston is Preston,” said Rashan Gary. “Preston is the heartbeat, man. He’s going on 10 years. I’ve been with him my whole six years. Everybody feeds off him. When Preston talks, everybody be quiet and listen because when 10 years talk, he’s coming from experience and understanding. That’s what P brings, man, just a leader through in and through outs.”

One of the more impressive feats that Smith has accomplished in his career is that he’s been the dictionary definition of durable. Over his nine NFL seasons, Smith has missed only one game and is rarely even on the team’s injury report.

As Matt LaFleur said, to a degree with injuries, there can be some luck involved. However, this is also a testament to Smith’s work ethic Monday through Saturday to make sure he prepared for Sundays. As the old saying goes, a player’s best ability, is their availability.

“Just taking care of the little things,” said Smith. “The recovery, making sure I take care of my body, I put the right things in my body and I make sure that I don’t do anything to jeopardize my health and I make sure I stay on top of my recovery process and taking care of my body so I don’t have to miss those games.

“Of course being an older guy, they feel like you start to get fragile and it’s not like that. I’m like fine wine. I’m getting better with age, as we can see, and I’m just happy to be here. I’m just happy to work with these guys and I’m looking forward to this season and the things that’s going to come.”

After a down 2020 season, Smith has recorded between 8.0 and 9.0 sacks in each of the last three seasons, although his pressure production has varied during that timeframe, with him totaling 63 pressures in 2021, 42 pressures in 2022, and 52 pressures in 2023.

However, the shift to Jeff Hafley’s defensive play style and scheme should afford Smith and the rest of the defensive front more opportunities to be disruptive, thus resulting in more steady production.

There were the instances under Joe Barry that drew the ire of the Packers’ fan base, where Smith would find himself in coverage across from some of the game’s top wide receivers like Justin Jefferson or Davante Adams. However, as Sports Illustrated’s Bill Huber detailed in an article, Smith’s extensive use in coverage was more of a myth than a fact.

The more impactful change under Hafley for Smith and the defensive front will be the shift from a two-gap defense to a one-gap system. Under Barry, the defensive front used a two-gap system, where the job of the defender was to read what the offensive line was doing and what was happening in the backfield, and then fill the more vulnerable gap that they were responsible for. In short, the pass rushers were often asked to read and then react.

In this new system, however, each defender is responsible for just one gap, and in short, the responsibility of each player is much more simple: get upfield and be as disruptive as possible.

“Finally, I’m out here rushing more,” said Smith, “and I get to get after the quarterback a whole lot more. I just love the system.

“It’s definitely fine detailing in his system,” added Smith. “Everybody has a role and everybody has a responsibility. Nobody gets a pass in no way or shape or form. Everybody has a responsibility in each call and anything. You kind of know the responsibility in the run game and the pass for everybody.”

The Packers laid a strong foundation during the offseason, as LaFleur put it, and right now the vibes and energy are high. Every player in that locker room certainly understands the opportunity that is in front of them this season–and that’s exciting.

While the infusion of youth into this roster last offseason was an integral part of the Packers’ quick turnaround in 2023, Smith’s veteran leadership is a very valuable element within the Green Bay locker room. Before the Packers can worry about the Super Bowl, the first step is making sure they return for training camp both mentally and physically ready to compete.

“We just go with that mindset that we feel like we’re the underdogs, so we’ve got to go out there and hunt,” Smith said. “You’ve got to earn the right to be hunted. Right now, finishing how we finished last year, we know there’s a lot of things we can improve on that we want to go past where we were at.

“We know this year we’re working on those things, guys getting comfortable in the system – new system on defense – guys working hard, working together, working with the coaches, coaches working with us. We’ve just going out there doing the best we can to make sure we start better than we left off.”