GREEN BAY, Wis. -- They almost played together in college and were reunited -- albeit briefly -- at the NFL scouting combine four years ago before they went their separate ways.
But they don’t even have each other’s phone numbers.
"One thing he did tell me, he was like, ‘Z, we’re going to do great things in this league,’" Za’Darius Smith said. "I kid you not. Now, we’re playing together."
Just hours apart during this week’s free-agent negotiation period, they agreed to deals that would bring them to Green Bay, although neither one knew the other was about to sign. For Za’Darius, it was a four-year, $66 million contract. For Preston, it was four years and $52 million.
Unless they plan to steal the English rock band of the 1980s name "The Smiths," call them the Packers’ $118 million pass-rushing combination. Oh yeah, their new position coach is Mike Smith.
"I guess it’s all Smiths," Za’Darius said. "Going to put something on the wall, the ‘Smith’ room. That will be cool."
Perry, 28, and Matthews, 32, combined to miss 21 games in the past four seasons. The Smiths, both 26, have missed six in that same span, all by Za’Darius. Preston is a perfect 64-for-64 in his NFL career. While Perry and Matthews combined for 47.5 sacks in the past four years, the Smiths have 43 in that same span despite not being full-time starters with their former teams.
They also might be more versatile, giving defensive coordinator Mike Pettine plenty of options.
"I think in Mike’s defense, if you can have guys on either side that are interchangeable that can do a variety of things and be versatile, it really makes it tough for the opponent," Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said. "And both of these guys can do that. I’m sure you guys have studied Za’Darius and he certainly can line up outside and rush with speed and power from the outside. But he’s also done a lot of 3-tech work. Preston is an exceptional athlete that can do a lot of different things, on the edge and inside as well.
"It’s shaping up and we’ll see how it goes, how Mike wants to use these guys. But I think the versatility is really going to help us along the front, all the way."
Gutekunst already released Perry and all but closed the door on Matthews, who is a free agent, when he said Thursday that "Clay’s a great player and he can play for any team in this league. So, if that comes, he will help somebody if it’s not us."
Gutekunst began telling agents last month at the combine that he planned to use free agency to upgrade his defense, specifically the pass rush. While the Packers ranked seventh in the NFL in sack rate, their blitz percentage was in the top-12 and their lone player with more than six sacks was linebacker Kyler Fackrell (with 10.5 after just five in his first two seasons). They didn’t have a single player with more than nine quarterback hits.
Still, the second-year GM said he didn’t set out to necessarily add two players at the same position.
"I don’t know if we attacked it like that, ‘Hey if we could just get one of them,’" he said. "I felt like if we could get an edge rusher, that would certainly help our team. So obviously, there’s a number of them in this year’s free-agent class, so we kind of had them stacked like we did and we went through and we were just kind of fortunate that we were able to get both of them."
They almost played together in college, to hear Za’Darius tell it. After just one year of high school football, he attended East Mississippi Community College, near where Preston was enrolled at Mississippi State.
"I took a visit there; that was the first time I ever met him," Za’Darius said.
But Za’Darius picked another SEC school, Kentucky, and their paths crossed occasionally.
"Then, we really got cool when we actually went to the combine," he said. "He’s a Smith and I’m a Smith, so we were right behind each other."
Even in the NFL, they were nearby. Preston was a second-round pick of the Redskins, while Za’Darius went just up the road as a fourth-round pick of the Ravens.
"Me and Za’Darius both wished each other luck before this process started," Preston said. "And it’s kind of crazy we ended up on the same team.
"I don’t have his number, but we of course ran across each other while we were in the building. We sat and talked, and just talked about how we both have two 5-year-olds and we just talked about having kids and finally living out our dream and being on a team together and we talked about how we can’t wait to get on the field together and make some things happen."