In the 2019 NFL draft, the Green Bay Packers surprised many by selecting Rashan Gary with the 12th overall pick. It was a surprise that wasn’t embraced by many Packers fans. There was no arguing that Gary possessed the raw athletic ability to be a first-round draft choice. But his statistics at the University of Michigan never matched his ability. Now in his second season with the Packers, Rashan Gary is starting to fulfill his potential.
Rashan Gary is Developing into the Player the Green Bay Packers Envisioned
The selection of Rashan Gary caught many by surprise in 2019. That offseason, general manager Brian Gutekunst spent big on shoring up the Packers pass rush. The Packers signed free agent outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith to big-money contracts. Many believed that would be enough to improve Green Bay’s outside linebacker position. However, Gutekunst had other ideas.
Rashan Gary and his athletic ability stood out leading up for the 2019 NFL draft. At 6’5″ and 287 lbs., Gary drew the attention of NFL scouts. He ran a 4.57 forty yard dash as well as registered a 6.70 seconds in the three-cone drill. His RAS score, a prospect scaling system Gutekunst values, was an eye-popping 9.95.
The former blue-chip recruit of Michigan had all the attributes you look for in an NFL player. However, his production at Michigan never matched those outstanding numbers.
In his three seasons at Michigan, Gary registered nine and a half sacks. In his final season with the Wolverines, he registered just three and a half sacks. But there is more to the story, something Gutekunst understood.
Time to Development at a New Position
It seems that there was some madness behind Gutekunst’s thinking when it came to selecting Rashan Gary.
While at Michigan, Gary was never asked to rush as a stand-up pass rusher. In most cases, Gary was utilized as a hand in the dirt defensive lineman. His primary duty was to clog lanes, lining up as both a defensive end and defensive tackle. Playing in the Packers 3-4 style defense as an outside linebacker, Rashan Gary had to do things he never did at Michigan. He needed time to develop, something he would have playing behind the Smiths.
It is a situation similar to when the Packers selected quarterback Aaron Rodgers in 2005. The Packers had Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre when Rodgers was selected in 2005. Former general manager Ted Thompson knew that the Packers would have time to groom Rodgers behind Favre. That is the same type of plan Gutekunst had when he grabbed Rashan Gary in 2019.
With the presence of the Smiths, Gary used his first season with the Packers as a “redshirt” season. He spent the time learning from the Smiths as well as from outside linebacker coach Mike Smith. He also contributed in limited playing time.
As Packers fans, as well as the rest of the NFL, is seeing, he has put that time to good use.
Second Year Jump
Even with signing free agents in 2019, the Packers roster is still built on developing players. Thompson did it when he was in charge and it appears Gutekunst is doing the same thing. With that philosophy, the Packers expect their rookie players to make a solid jump from their rookie season to their second season. From what we are witnessing from Rashan Gary in 2020, it appears he is making that jump.
In Gary’s rookie season, which saw him play limited snaps, he registered two sacks with 21 combined tackles, three of those tackles for loss. In the 12 games he has played this season, Gary has sacked the opposing quarterback five times, along with 21 combined tackles. He has also increased his tackles for loss to four. His numbers are on the rise, something the Packers were hoping to see out of him this season.
It isn’t just the number that are making the Packers happy with Gary’s play. The way that Gary is playing in his second season must be making Gutekunst and especially defensive coordinator Mike Pettine happy. That was highlighted in the Packers victory over the Detroit Lions this past Sunday.
Early in the first half, Gary beat the Packers tackle with a speed rush. His speed was no match for the tackle. It led to Gary to sacking Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford for a vital loss. His speed, and overall improving play, has many believing he has a long term starting position in his future.
Rashan Gary Playing Himself Into Starting Role
While Rashan Gary’s play has improved, Preston Smith’s has declined.
Last season, Smith had 12 sacks, 56 combined tackles, 23 quarterback hits, and 11 tackles for loss. In 12 games so far this season, Smith has just three sacks, 36 combined tackles, eight quarterback hits, and only six tackles for loss. After such a great 2019, it has been a disappointing season for Smith in 2020.
With Smith’s number dropping and Gary’s numbers increasing, it has many wondering if Smith’s time with the Packers are numbered. Smith signed a four year contract when he signed with the Packers in 2019. With the Packers signing David Bakhtiari and Kenny Clark to new deals, and several prominent Packers up for free agency this off-season, the Packers are looking for salary cap room. That has led many to believe Smith might be a salary cap casualty.
Even with Smith’s drop in play and Gary emerging, it would seem pretty risky to part ways with the veteran Smith. Yes, his play has dropped, but he still is a solid player in the Packers outside linebacker rotation. Gary is emerging, but Smith still is a veteran presence on the Packers defense.
While Smith looks like he will return, it doesn’t mean you will see less from Rashan Gary. Gary is an ascending pass rusher and has a lot of good football ahead of him. Even with Smith possibly returning, Gary might be the starting outside linebacker opposite Za’Darius Smith in 2021. While Gary might not have been the fans choice in 2019, fans should be thrilled that he is a part of the Packers future.
Embed from Getty Images