GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Green Bay Packers have a problem with outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith and it has nothing to do with contracts or Twitter posts or Instagram stories.
Smith has a back injury that won’t heal as long as he keeps trying to get ready to play a game each week and after almost two months of trying to get back on the field, the Packers decided to shut him down and focus on getting him back to full health.
Neither the Packers nor Smith, who has yet to speak to reporters this season, has said exactly what the issue is with his back, whether it’s skeletal, disk-related or muscle-related. But after so much rehab, they must be concerned about his status for the year to put him on injured reserve.
On Friday, coach Matt LaFleur said the Packers were going to “shut him down” and let him continue to work on rehabbing the injury without the stress of having to practice and play each week. They were able to get 18 snaps out of him in the season opener against New Orleans, but LaFleur said they didn’t think they could get much more than that each week if they continued on this path.
“It was a matter of just, you keep him in a limited role or do you shut him down for a while, try to get him healthy and then get him up to the snap count that we’d like him to be just like he’s been in the past because he’s such an impact player,” LaFleur said.
“So, it’s just the route that we thought was best long term.”
Smith must sit out a minimum of three weeks before the Packers can bring him back, so he’ll be able to spend at least that long trying to heal the injury without the stress of practicing or playing in a game. The Packers can keep him on injured reserve as long as they want.
To fill Smith’s spot on the 53-man roster, the Packers signed 6-2, 262-pound outside linebacker La’Darius Hamilton from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad. Hamilton, an undrafted free agent who initially signed with Dallas in May 2020, was released by the Buccaneers on the final cut and re-signed to the practice squad a short time later.
The Packers will have to keep him on the roster a minimum of three weeks, per league rules.
Hamilton won’t be able to fill Smith’s role as a pass rusher, but at 260 pounds, he should give them some strength on the edge in the run game. He had 15 sacks in his final two seasons playing defensive end at North Texas, but he has not been able to carry that over into the pros.
With Smith out, Rashan Gary will start opposite Preston Smith for the second consecutive week and Jonathan Garvin and Chauncey Rivers will continue to fill in. In the opener, Gary played 37 snaps, Garvin 27 and Rivers 11.
“It’s the next-man-in mentality and certainly everybody’s gonna have to play their part in terms of getting that production,” LaFleur said. “So, we need everybody to be at their best.”
Za’Darius Smith reported to camp with the back injury and since he wasn’t suffering from it last year or from off-season workouts, it’s considered a “non-football” injury. He was placed on the reserve/NFI list upon reporting to camp and stayed there until Aug. 16.
He was given the go-ahead to practice and so the Packers removed him from the list, but it turned out he was not ready and he returned to full-time rehab the next day. The training staff had been working with him to get him ready for the season opener and after returning to practice on a limited basis last week for three days, he played Sunday.
“I didn’t know the full details of what he was dealing with,” Preston Smith said. “I know he was obviously in discomfort. With his mindset of being a fighter and wanting to be out there with his teammates, wanting to go out there and compete, I know his mindset is you don’t give up.
“Even with this thing, they probably had to take him and hide his shoulder pads because he would still try to practice.”
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The Packers had three days off the practice field this week because of the extra day during a Monday night game week, but it didn’t do anything to better the situation with Za’Darius Smith. So, after discussions with the medical staff, LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst decided it was better to have Smith at close to 100% than to continue squeezing whatever they could out of him.
“It’s one thing when you’re managing a back throughout the course of the season,” LaFleur said. “(But) why not try to get him as healthy as possible, so we can have him more readily available?”
Smith’s injury has plagued him since training camp began when the Packers put him on the non-football injury list. He tried to come back for one day in mid-August but proved unready.
He practiced in pads for the first time last week and in his 18 snaps, didn’t have to come off the field after any play. He even had a crushing hit on quarterback Jameis Winston that was called for unnecessary roughness. LaFleur said Thursday the league let him know it was an improper call.
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But as any football player knows, back injuries are debilitating and can result in chronic pain, loss of lower-body explosiveness and reduced flexibility. When healthy, Smith can be a disruptive force in both the pass and run games. He has led the Packers in sacks during both of his seasons in Green Bay.
Smith has raised eyebrows with ambiguous tweets and Instagram posts about contracts and not being voted a captain this year. He has two years remaining on his contract and is due to receive $17 million this year, $14.76 million of which is guaranteed and $10 million of which has already been paid.
He has played in all 33 games as a Packer, totaling 101 tackles, 26 sacks and five forced fumbles.