The Ravens have reportedly agreed to a four-year, $35 million deal with outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, bolstering their pass rush with a widely hoped-for reunion.
Smith, a Pro Bowl selection with the Green Bay Packers in 2019 and 2020 who missed most of last season with a back injury, could earn up to $50 million on the contract, ESPN reported Wednesday.
Smith’s return to Baltimore, where his career began, came just a day after the Ravens upgraded the back end of their defense, agreeing to terms with safety Marcus Williams on a five-year, $70 million deal. With offensive tackle Morgan Moses also finalizing his three-year, $15 million contract Wednesday, the Ravens have tackled three of their roster’s biggest needs with prominent starters in the first wave of free agency.
General manager Eric DeCosta acknowledged at his season-ending news conference last month that “it’s always a priority to improve the pass rush,” but the Ravens’ struggles last season made the need more urgent. Their defense finished with just 34 sacks in 17 games, their fewest since 2016, and had a below-average pressure rate (23%, according to Pro Football Reference) despite ranking among the NFL’s most blitz-happy teams under former coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale.
New coordinator Mike Macdonald will now add Smith to an outside linebacker room led by Tyus Bowser and Odafe Oweh, both of whom are coming off promising years and offseason surgeries. Reserves Daelin Hayes and Jaylon Ferguson should be solid reserves, and the Ravens could have their pick of several talented pass rushers with the No. 14 overall selection in next month’s draft.
In Bowser, Oweh and Smith, the Ravens have a trio of uniquely skilled edge defenders. Bowser is one of the NFL’s best outside linebackers in coverage. Oweh projects as an elite run stopper, and he moved around the defensive front as a rookie, even helping to spy quarterbacks. Smith only occasionally rushed the passer from the interior in Green Bay, but in his final year in Baltimore, he had 5 ½ sacks when lining up inside the tackles, according to Sports Info Solutions.
“You don’t know where he’s going to go,” former Packers inside linebacker Christian Kirksey told Green Bay’s team website in 2020. “When you have a guy that high-caliber, you can use him in many ways and that’s the advantage for us on defense, that he can play good in the run and also play good in the pass and he’s versatile [enough] to be able to play all over the field.
“And he’s smart enough to play all over the field. Having a player like that definitely helps us.”
Baltimore Ravens Insider
Green Bay released Smith, 29, on Monday as part of a series of cost-cutting moves; he was set to count $27.6 million against the salary cap in 2022. Smith played in 33 games (32 starts) over his three seasons with the Packers, finishing with 26 sacks. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers’ T.J. Watt (29 ½ sacks) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Shaquil Barrett (27 ½) had more than Smith from 2019 to 2020.
2021, however, was almost a lost season for Smith. He practiced only once during training camp, sidelined by a lingering back injury, before ramping up his activity for the Packers’ season opener. But after playing 18 snaps against the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur said the team would have to “shut him down for a while.”
“It’s a matter of just, do you keep him in a limited role?” LaFleur told reporters in mid-September. “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, ‘cause he’s such an impact player. So that’s just the route that we thought was best long term.”
Smith returned to practice before the Packers’ playoff opener against the San Francisco 49ers, and he had a sack in 19 defensive snaps in the divisional-round loss.
Smith started his career six years ago in Baltimore and racked up 18 ½ sacks over four seasons. After a breakout 2018, in which Smith had a team-high 8 ½ sacks and 25 quarterback hits, the former fourth-round pick signed a four-year, $66 million contract with the Packers.
DeCosta said at the time that he was hopeful that the Ravens might have a “chance” of re-signing Smith, then 26, but said “the market is usually out of control” for edge rushers early in free agency.
On Wednesday, the price — and timing — was right for a return.