The Green Bay Packers are moving quickly to bolster their outside linebacker ranks after announcing that All-Pro pass rusher Za’Darius Smith will be placed on injured reserve prior to Week 2’s home opener against the Detroit Lions.
According to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, the Packers are signing second-year outside linebacker La’Darius Hamilton off of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad and to their 53-man roster heading into their first divisional matchup of the 2021 season. Hamilton was already practicing with the Packers on Friday and wearing No. 54, which most recently belonged to linebacker Kamal Martin.
Hamilton originally signed as an undrafted rookie with the Dallas Cowboys in 2020 coming out of North Texas and spent his entire first season in the league on their practice squad. While the Cowboys waived him following the 2021 NFL draft — and their selection of Iowa edge rusher Chauncey Golston in the third round — the Buccaneers claimed him off the waivers in May and carried him on their roster through all of training camp.
During his preseason action for the Bucs, Hamilton notched five solo tackles, four stops, two pressures and a sack while playing on 59 total defensive snaps, making him an obvious choice for their practice squad after he missed the initial 53-man roster cut. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound pass rusher also received decent performance grades from Pro Football Focus, receiving his highest mark for his run-stopping ability (71.2).
The Packers had not yet announced the addition of Hamilton as of early Friday afternoon, but it is expected he will take Smith’s roster spot once the team places him on injured reserve. Hamilton’s addition will also allow the Packers to keep five outside linebackers on their active roster, a position group that also includes Preston Smith, Rashan Gary, Jonathan Garvin and Chauncey Rivers.
Update (09/17, 5:43 p.m. ET): The Packers officially announced both Smith’s placement on IR and Hamilton’s addition to the active roster on Friday evening.
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Gary Now Poised for Breakout
The loss of Smith is a tough one for the Packers, even if he is only away from the team for the minimum requirement of three weeks. He notched nearly 30 sacks and more than 140 quarterback pressures over his first two seasons in Green Bay and now leaves a struggling Packers defense trying to bounce back without one of its top weapons.
From a glass-half-full perspective, though, the deduction of Smith from the lineup clears the way for Gary to get his most substantial reps for the Packers to date, which is great news after the promise he flashed during his second year in the league in 2020. While Gary only played on 44% of defensive snaps (456), he recorded more sacks and pressures than Preston Smith despite the latter playing on 358 more reps.
Gary was also the lone bright spot for the Packers’ pass rushers in Week 1’s loss against the New Orleans Saints, pressuring Jameis Winston four times and registering two hits.
“I think Rashan is a guy that, first of all, his approach is spot on in terms of the effort he gives each and every day,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur told reporters on September 17. “Every rep, he goes 100 miles an hour and I think you can feel that effect not only in practice but in the games. We just need for him to continue that upward trajectory that he’s been on.”
Can Other OLBs Make an Impact?
The Packers are fortunate to have two reliable pass rushers in Smith and Gary to hold things down while their All-Pro is on the mend, but they will need some of the other depth pieces — Hamilton included — to step up to keep things from falling apart. As good as Smith and Gary might play in the coming weeks, they cannot be expected to play every snap. The question is: Who will step up as the new No. 3?
Hamilton makes for an interesting addition, but it is likely he will need at least a week to get up to speed on the Packers’ defensive system. That should mean Garvin and Rivers will get extended looks as rotational pieces against the Detroit Lions in Week 2; however, neither did much with their Week 1 opportunities. While both played on about a dozen defensive snaps, they recorded no tackles or pressures.
The Packers will host the Lions on Lambeau Field at 8:15 p.m. ET for Monday Night Football.