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Packers draft reaction: Rashan Gary reignites debate over athletic gifts vs. proven ability

By selecting Michigan’s Rashan Gary, the Packers took another swing on a rookie pass rusher with tremendous upside but low floor.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Though far from the biggest surprise of Day, the Green Bay Packers invested the No. 12 overall selection in Michigan pass rusher Rashan Gary. Gary’s selection will reignite some long-running debates in Wisconsin about the value of physical gifts versus that of established production and skills.

Any conversation about Gary starts with his athletic traits. The Michigan pass rusher scored in the 94th percentile for overall athleticism, according to 3 Sigma Athlete. That figure looks even more impressive when considering Gary’s massive fame (6-foot-4, 277 pounds) and youth (he doesn’t turn 22 until December). Those physical tools should allow him to play in multiple roles at the NFL level.

Of course, a player with such a tremendous athletic profile wouldn’t last until the No. 12 pick if not for some concerns, and Gary fell short of expectations during his collegiate career. In three seasons, Gary amassed just eight sacks and 23 tackles for loss. Pro Football Focus counted just 106 pressures for Gary during that time, a far cry from team leader and fellow 2019 draft prospect Chase Winovich. A number of factors contributed to Gary’s low production figures, some outside of his control. Still, a player so gifted should have manufactured more pressure.

Green Bay will start Gary’s pro career at outside linebacker. While that makes some sense given Mike Pettine’s defense, Gary saw little action working in space during his time at Michigan. Accordingly, the team will need to exercise patience as he adjusts. At some point, the Packers could also feature Gary as an interior defender in certain sub packages, something they also plan to do with the recently signed Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith.

Because the Packers don’t need a rookie edge rusher to start immediately and Gary’s lack of refinement, evaluating the selection presents challenges. He doesn’t look like the Day 1 impact player many expected general manager Brian Gutekunst to add with a rare top-15 draft pick. Moreover, Gary’s profile as a high-upside, low-floor prospect will remind many of former Green Bay draft misses like Justin Harrell and Datone Jones. Gary even reportedly has a labral tear in one of his shoulders that could require surgery.

All of those factors, not to mention the presence of “cleaner” pass-rushing prospects like Brian Burns at pick No. 12, will only add to pressure on Gary and the team that took him. Gary’s best-case scenario looks a lot like that of Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter, himself once an underachieving uber-athletic college pass rusher. Hunter did little during the first three months of his rookie season before exploding that December, eventually becoming one of the best edge rushers in the NFL. Gary has a comparable ceiling but comes to Green Bay at a considerably higher price.

Now, the burden to make the Packers look smart falls onto Pettine and his assistants. Gary has all the raw ability in the world. They have to find a way to develop and deploy their new charge in a reasonable timeframe.