Preston Smith Making A Case to Return to the Green Bay Packers in 2023

Preston Smith

The Green Bay Packers kept their playoff hopes alive with their 26-20 victory over the Miami Dolphins. With two games left, the Packers will need to continue their winning streak to have any chance of making the playoffs. While their season continues, the Packers front office is pondering decisions they need to make for next season. They will be strapped for cash heading into 2023 and many of the current players will not return. A good chunk of them will find themselves as salary cap casualties. One of those possible casualties is making a very strong case to return in 2023. Outside linebacker Preston Smith is playing like a player that should return in 2023.

MORE PACKERS: Zach Tom Earning Left Tackle Job

Preston Smith Earning A Spot With the 2023 Green Bay Packers

After the 2020 season, it appeared that Preston Smith had played his last game as a Packer. That season, Smith suffered his worst season in Green Bay. His four sacks tied a career low, and that lack of production made it appear that the Packers would be moving on from the veteran pass rusher.

However, to the surprise of many, general manager Brian Gutekunst had other ideas. Gutekunst and Smith agreed to a renegotiated contract. The incentive-laden deal would make Smith prove his worth, something that he did in 2021.

Preston Smith had a bounce-back season in 2021. He registered nine sacks, 17 quarterback hits, and forced two fumbles. It was a season that Packers fans had been accustomed to seeing from Smith, since signing as a free agent with the Packers prior to the 2019 season.

But even after his bounce-back 2021 season, his return in 2022 wasn’t guaranteed. After the conclusion of 2021, Gutekunst was faced with a very difficult decision. Former first-round pick Rashan Gary had emerged as the top pass rusher on the Green Bay Packers defense. With him locked in as the top pass rusher, it left Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith on who would return as the Packers starting outside linebacker opposite of Gary.

With Za’Darius Smith coming off an injury-plagued season, Gutekunst chose to go with Preston Smith. Smith and the Packers signed a new deal with the Packers. But even with the new deal, Smith finds himself currently in a similar situation.

The Packers will need to get rid of some big-money deals before next season. That has led some to believe that Smith might be once again on the chopping block. But with the way he has played this season, he is making it very difficult for Gutekunst and vice president Russ Ball.

Smith is Still Producing, Even Without Gary

Not much has gone right this season for Joe Barry and the Green Bay Packers defense. The Packers defense has struggled under Barry. So much so, that it is highly doubtful that Barry will return as the Packers defensive coordinator in 2023, playoffs or not.

However, you can’t blame Preston Smith for the Packers defensive struggles this season. Even with other players struggling, Smith has held up his end of the bargain. That was on display against the Dolphins on Christmas day. Smith chalked up five combined tackles, one forced fumble, and also had a sack on the day. Without Smith, there is a good chance that the Packers wouldn’t have won that game.

After 15 games, Smith has registered 55 combined tackles, nine of them for a loss, eight and a half sacks, and forced one fumble. What makes those numbers even more impressive is that he has done that without Gary opposite of him for a good chunk of the season.

In Week 9, in a 15-9 loss against the Detroit Lions, Rashan Gary suffered a season-ending torn ACL injury. Gary’s injury meant they would be without their most explosive pass rusher. It also meant that it would put more pressure on Preston Smith. But the pressure hasn’t stopped Smith from producing. Even with the Green Bay Packers defense struggling, and without Gary, Smith continues to produce. While doing so, Smith has quieted the talk of him being a salary cap casualty.

Lack of Depth Helping Decide Smith’s Fate

It isn’t only Preston Smith’s production that is helping Gutekunst and Ball make their decision about bringing Smith back more difficult. Excluding Smith and Gary, the depth at outside linebacker is pretty thin.

Kingsley Enagbare, a fifth-round rookie, has shown some promise with Gary being out. However, he is far from being a finished product. The Packers are expecting Enagbare to continue to grow and become a key contributor. But that might be a ways off.

The Packers picked up outside linebacker Justin Hollins off waivers from the Los Angeles Rams after Gary’s injury. Hollins has leapfrogged fellow outside linebacker Jonathan Garvin, a Gutekunst draft pick, on the depth chart. He has shown some ability to rush the passer and is currently a key piece in the Packers outside linebacker rotation. But Hollins will be a free agent at the conclusion of the season. His return isn’t a guarantee.

Gary isn’t expected to be ready for the start of the 2023 season. In fact, he might not be ready until at best midway through the season. Gutekunst and the Packers might be forced to use a high-round draft pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. But even if they do, it would be a lot to ask a rookie to step in immediately and contribute.

Preston Smith is locked in through 2026. Yes, he will carry a big salary cap number, but that money will be well worth keeping Smith. He has produced this season and with so many unknowns for 2023, the decision should be easy. Preston Smith should be a Packer in 2023.