The Green Bay Packers defense has a plethora of talent. The cornerbacks are led by Jaire Alexander, one of the best cover corners in the NFL. At just 25 years of age, Kenny Clark is just reaching the tip of his ability. The safety duo of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage Jr. makes up one of the better safety duos in the NFL. But even with all that talent, there is one unit that stands out above the rest. The Green Bay Packers outside linebackers are the engine that will make the Packers defense go in 2021.
The Green Bay Packers Outside Linebackers Have no Shortage of Talent
The hiring of new defensive coordinator Joe Barry this off-season caused quite a stir amongst Packers fans. Barry’s track record as a defensive coordinator, first with the Detroit Lions and then with the Washington Football Team, did not bring many warm fuzzies to Packers fans.
However, now with the Packers, Barry will have something he did not with the Lions or Washington. That being the talent the Packers outside linebackers possess. While the defense does have some holes, the Packers outside linebackers group is not one of them. A lot of NFL teams would be delighted to have one outside linebacker that can get to the opposing quarterback. But the Packers are blessed to have three who will make Barry’s job a lot easier in 2021.
Smith is the Standout of the Group
In the off-season leading up to the 2019 season, general manager Brian Gutekunst signed four big free agents to contracts. Out of that group of four, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith has turned out to be the best.
Since signing his deal, Smith has put up big numbers for the Packers defense. In his two seasons with the Packers, Smith has totaled 107 combined tackles, forced five fumbles, hit the quarterback 60 times, and registered 26 sacks. When the Packers have needed to create pressure, it has been Smith doing it.
With Smith’s ability to line up all over the defensive line, it should give Barry a lot of options. Finding a great matchup should not be difficult for Barry when it comes to using Smith.
An Up and Coming Pass Rusher
Gutekunst took a lot of heat when he selected Rashan Gary with the Packers first-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft. Gary’s athletic ability has never been questioned. As the top prospect coming out of high school, he was once compared to Reggie White. But while at the University of Michigan, Gary’s production never met his ability. That was the biggest knock on him coming out of Michigan. It was also the reason many questioned his selection.
Fast forward to the present, it seems that Gutekunst and his staff knew what they were doing. Gary, who shifted to outside linebacker when he arrived in Green Bay, has gotten better every year he has played for the Packers. In his rookie season, seeing just spot duty, he registered two sacks. Last season, with increased playing time, his sacks rose to five. He also increased his quarterback hits from three to 11.
Entering his third season, it appears the sky is the limit for the uber-talented pass rusher. Similar to Smith, Gary has the ability to line up all over the defensive line. Barry has talked about getting his best players on the field at the same time. Packers fans should expect to see Gary line up on the same defensive front with Smith, Clark, and Preston Smith this season. Out of all of the Packers outside linebackers, it appears Gary has the most natural talent.
Preston Smith Looking to Bounce Back
Smith was one of the other free agents Gutekunst signed prior to the 2019 NFL season. Similar to Za’Darius Smith, he made his presence felt right away.
That season, he had 56 combined tackles, one forced fumble, one interception, and chalked up 12 sacks. He and Za’Darius made up one of the best passing rushing duos in the NFL that season.
However, in 2020, Smith’s production had a setback. His sack total dropped from 12 to four. His combined tackles and quarterback hits dropped also. The lack of production caused many to think that he would be a salary cap casualty this off-season.
The Packers front office had other ideas. Instead of releasing him, the Packers restructured his contract. The restructuring not only gave the Packers salary cap room, but it gives Smith a chance to prove that 2020 was just a one-shot deal.
On paper, the bet the Packers are making on Smith’s rebound seems like a good one. Only two seasons ago he registered 12 sacks. He also has a chance to work with a coordinator that hopefully will not have him drop into coverage so much.
Smith has a history with Barry as well, as he was the defensive coordinator while Smith was with Washington. Reuniting the two might get Smith back on track. Smith will have to fight for playing time though. Towards the end of 2020, Gary was seeing more playing time than he was. But competition might be a good thing to get the best out of Smith.
Battle for the Fourth Packers Outside Linebackers Spot
With the Smiths and Gary locking up the top three outside linebacker spots, it appears there will be just one more spot to fill.
The fourth spot will most likely go to a developmental pass-rushing prospect, but one that can immediately play on special teams. Randy Ramsey seemed like the leading candidate until he suffered an ankle injury and will be lost for the season. That leaves the competition wide open.
If Barry is looking for the best prospect as a pass rusher, it appears that Jonathan Garvin will be the leading candidate. The Packers selected Garvin in the seventh round in the 2020 NFL draft. While at the University of Miami (FL), Garvin totaled 12.5 sacks. He showed good potential as a pass rusher, the potential that could excite the Packers. One setback for Garvin making the roster is he lacks the ability to play on special teams. Something that seems like a must for the fourth outside linebacker.
Two other candidates battling for the fourth spot are Delontae Scott and Tipa Galeai. Both spent time on the Packers practice squad in 2020. Galeai did dress for one game, the season opener, but did not register a tackle. Scott has the ability to line up at multi positions, while Galeai is seen as just an outside linebacker prospect. Both players have the ability to play on special teams, but Galeai seems like the better of the two.
Chauncey Rivers was a late addition to the Packers training camp roster. He was picked up after being let go by the Baltimore Ravens. He had a decent showing in the Packers first preseason game. Similar to Scott, he has the ability to line up not only outside, but inside as well.
Projected Packers Outside Linebackers Group to Start 2021
Za’Darius Smith, Rashan Gary, Preston Smith, and Tipa Galeai are on the active roster. Practice squad signings may be Jonathan Garvin and Delontae Scott.