Packers: LaFleur respects former LB Za’Darius Smith, says team has a ‘different perspective’ of Smith’s mistreatment claim

There will be some additional venom in an already healthy rivalry when Green Bay and Minnesota meet Sunday in the season opener for both teams. It comes courtesy of former Packers and current Vikings linebacker Za’Darius Smith, who told Ty Dunne of that he did not like the way he was treated in Green Bay last year while going through a back injury that led to him missing most of the season.

“Walking past me not saying nothing. ‘Z, how’s your back doing?’ — there was none of that,” Smith told Dunne via Pro Football Talk. “As you can see, that adds on to why I’m on the other side. So, I can go back. I get to go back two times a year. … I put my back on the f—ing line. I put everything. And that year three, I was treated bad. That’s why I’m here now. So, I can play them twice a year.”

Smith missed most of training camp prior to the 2021 season, wasn’t selected as a captain for the first time in his three years with the club and ended up playing just one regular season game before undergoing back surgery. The two-time Pro Bowler returned for the playoffs and had one tackle for loss against San Francisco. Facing salary cap issues this offseason, the Packers released Smith.

“I respect the crap out of ‘Z’ as a player,” coach Matt LaFleur said Wednesday. “He busted his butt, did a lot of great things. I think we may have a different perspective of how things transpired. I’ll just leave it at that.”

The soon-to-be 30-year-old Smith was initially expected to go back to Baltimore where he played the first four years of his career. But after Packers linebacker Mike Smith left Green Bay and moved over to Minnesota, Za’Darius Smith changed his mind and signed with the Vikings. Bad blood aside, LaFleur understands what Smith can do to ruin an offense. He saw it first hand in 2019 and 2020 when Smith led the team with 26 sacks.

“He’s one of the premier pass rushers in this league,” LaFleur said. “He’s a challenge because he presents problems on the outside and his versatility as a player where they can kick him inside and match him up over guards or centers or wherever they want to put him. He’s an elite level player in this league. Anytime you’re going up against that — and then you’ve got (Danielle) Hunter on the other side from him potentially — it causes some restless nights.”