preston smith photo 5-26

Packers' Preston Smith sacks Panthers' Teddy Bridgewater last season at Lambeau Field.

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GREEN BAY — The low-intensity, helmets-and-shorts vibe of the Green Bay Packers’ first open-to-the-media organized team activity practice of the offseason earlier this week didn’t lend itself to making particularly meaningful observations.

But one of the team’s defensive stars, looking to regain his field-tilting form after a down year and the corresponding pay cut that followed, did make an impression: veteran outside linebacker Preston Smith.

Smith looked noticeably slimmer during Tuesday’s practice at Clarke Hinkle Field than last season, when he saw his production drop off precipitously, leading to the team slashing his salary-cap number in half for this season, from $16 million to $8.75 million.

Smith is still listed at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, but Packers outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said Preston’s fitter appearance wasn’t because of any sort of edict for defensive players to drop weight as part of new defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s scheme.

“He does look a lot leaner than he did coming in last training camp. But no, there wasn’t as much (of an emphasis),” Mike Smith said during a series of Zoom calls the defensives coaches did with reporters Wednesday. “Those guys know how I feel about training. To me, that’s the edge and that’s the secret.

“Guys get tired, and you get into the fourth quarter, they’re eventually going to give up. The better shape we’re in, we can go all game, and it’s better for us. Those guys know. So, I’m sure Preston is training his butt off, which you can tell when he came in.”

Preston Smith, who was part of a four-man free agent signing class in 2019 that catapulted the Packers to the NFC Championship Game in coach Matt LaFleur’s first season, had an immediate impact that season lining up opposite fellow free agent signee Za’Darius Smith. Preston finished 2019 with 12 sacks and 55 quarterback pressures, making his four-year, $52 million signing look like money well spent.

Last season, he registered just four sacks and his pressures cratered to just 26. Delivering a third as many sacks and less than half as many pressures with a high cap number left the Packers with two choices: Release Smith outright or work out a restructured deal that cut his pay but gave him a chance to earn that lost money back. General manager Brian Gutekunst opted for the latter and the sides came to an agreement in March.

“We ask a lot of Preston. He plays a lot of roles for us. He’s such a versatile athlete. He can do so many different things. So while those numbers might’ve been down, I think he affected our football team in a very positive way,” Gutekunst explained at the time. “I think there are some things between the numbers there where his value doesn’t always show.

“If you go back to Washington, his sack numbers were always a little bit up-and-down. But he’s a really good player for us and he’s got a lot of good years left, that’s for sure.”

Indeed, during his four-year career in Washington, Smith had eight sacks in 2015 and in 2017, but only 4.5 in 2016 and only four in 2018. Since it’s an odd-numbered year, his numbers could rebound, given the pattern of his career so far.

If they do, he’ll recoup much of the money he gave up to return. Smith is being paid $8 million this season — a $1 million base salary, $6.5 million signing bonus, $200,000 workout bonus and a potential $300,000 in weekly roster bonuses for being on the active 46-man game-day roster.

He can then earn back $4.4 million in incentives tied to his sack production, receiving an additional $500,000 bonus for recording six sacks; an additional $750,000 for reaching eight sacks; another $750,000 for reaching 10 sacks; another $1.2 million if he records 12 sacks; and another $1.2 million if he reaches 14 sacks.

“To play defensive football in the National Football league right now you’ve got to be able to run,” said Barry, who coached Smith in Washington earlier in their careers. “Of course, as a coach, especially your players in the front, you want those guys to be as big as possible. But you don’t want them to be so big where now they can’t move, they’re not athletic, they can’t change direction.

“My biggest thing with talking to those guys (is), ‘Hey, (be at) whatever that sweet-spot weight is.’ I obviously had some background with Preston in Washington. … (He’s) really been putting the work in since they’ve been away.”

It will be interesting to see how Barry deploys the two Smiths and 2019 first-round pick Rashan Gary, who took a significant step forward in his second season last year and began getting some of Preston’s snaps late in the season. Barry has used myriad personnel groupings in his previous stops and may try to have the Smith-Smith-Gary trio on the field together frequently.

“I don’t want to get too much into what we’re doing, but I think you saw a lot of it the last couple years (under previous defensive coordinator Mike Pettine), and Joe saw some stuff that we were doing,” Mike Smith said of that threesome playing together. “I got a lot of guys that can play in my room, and everybody’s asking, ‘How are you going to get ‘em on the field?’ Well, you need that many pass rushers and guys of their size and strength.

“I was actually thinking about it this morning how grateful I am for my room. I got a bunch of tough, mean, nasty dudes.”

Extra points

The Packers restructured defensive end Dean Lowry’s contract to create additional salary cap space, ESPN reported. Lowry had $3.11 million of his $4.1 million scheduled base salary converted into a signing bonus, creating $2.488 million in cap space. … With their top five wide receivers staying away from OTAs — at least for the open session on Tuesday — the Packers added wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins. The 5-foot-11, 188-pound Thompkins entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Penn State in 2019, spending training camp with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was with the Pittsburgh Steelers briefly last year but has never played in an NFL regular-season game. The Packers practiced Tuesday without Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and Devin Funchess, who all skipped the voluntary workout. … With Thompkins’ addition, the Packers’ roster now stands at the maximum 90 players.

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This article originally ran on madison.com.

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