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Packers can use Jadeveon Clowney as blueprint to maximize Rashan Gary’s talent

Green Bay took a risk on tools by taking the former No. 1 recruit with injury and production questions. Mike Pettine can take a page out of the Texans playbook to deploy the 12th overall pick.

NFL: Houston Texans at Washington Redskins
Rashan Gary and Jadeveon Clowney came to the NFL with similar scouting reports and could be used comparably in the NFL.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

A former No. 1 overall recruit with ridiculous size, power, and athleticism who faced injury and production questions at the college level will come to Green Bay this offseason after all. It just turned out not to be Jadeveon Clowney, a player some fans clamored for the Packers to acquire this offseason.

The similarities, in terms of strengths and weaknesses, between Clowney and first-round draft pick Rashan Gary shouldn’t be ignored, nor should the difference in their perceived quality as prospects. In other words, Gary isn’t Clowney coming out, a near-unanimous No. 1 prospect. Gary wasn’t even a unanimous first-round prospect over concerns he didn’t have the sack production or pass rush refinement needed to be a top pick.

When Brian Gutekunst tabbed him with the 12th overall pick, he put his money on Gary’s upside and Mike Pettine’s ability to deploy him as a chess piece weapon. All the Packers have to do is look at how the Houston Texans deploy Clowney to find ways to maximize their swing-for-the-fences first-round pick.

Physically, the size/speed ratio and power both Gary and Clowney can generate stands out. Clowney, at 6-foot-5/266 with 34 1/2’’ arms, ran 4.53. That’s a Speed Score in the 98th percentile of defensive ends. Gary somehow bested him as a straight line athlete, putting up a Speed Score in the 100th percentile with the fastest 40 ever by a player 270+ at 4.58. In fact, Gary tested as a better athlete overall, with superior Burst Scores and Agility Scores.

If there’s one thing we know Gary can do, it’s play with power, He’s at his best bullying offensive tackles and tight ends on the edge and has the burst to close down space in a hurry. For Mike Pettine, there’s an easy transition to being an A-gap blitzer, one of the bread-and-butter looks used by this defense last season and throughout Pettine’s tenure.

Here’s a shot of Clowney as an A-Gap blitzer in the playoffs a few seasons ago. For a guy who, even in the NFL, has been knocked for his production, this is undoubtedly an impact play.

There’s a subtle slap move there from Clowney, but this is mostly timing and burst. Something Gary has in spades. If Pettine can scheme him free, he’s getting home, but with a running start and his power, Gary should be able to thrive on plays exactly like this one, particularly with a little more refinement with his hand placement.

Some draft critics wondered if Clowney had enough bend as a pass rusher. Did he have the flexibility to bend the edge around an offensive tackle and flatten his path to the quarterback? This has been a major question with Gary as well as guys like Montez Sweat. The counter for Clowney fans, and potentially for the Packers with Gary, is if a guy can win with power, it might not matter.

If an edge rusher has burst up the field to gain position on the tackle, which we know Gary does, then let him use power to keep the lineman off his body, then his length (34 1/8’’ arms) to finish. This is Clowney’s game.

One reason we didn’t see more of it at Michigan was the position he played. Gary didn’t get as many opportunities as many of the other top pass rushers in this class to pin his ears back, fly off the edge and go hunt quarterbacks. Often, he was playing on the tight end side of the formation and eating up blockers or trying to knife inside to make plays in the run game.

There’s a 10,000 hours component to football just like anything else; the more reps you get doing a thing, the more likely you are to master it. This is where new outside linebackers coach Mike Smith has to come in. Gary’s tools are unquestioned. He could make plays like this with a little seasoning. Too often he simply tried to run over or around people rather than use technique to win. But occasionally, he’d throw a great rush rep on tape where we’d see the burst the power and some refinement. Those plays usually ended in pain for the opponent.

One place Gary’s game is ready-made for the NFL is as a run defender. He plays hard, physically, and stout at the point of attack. Teams can’t run at him because they can’t move him and if you run away from him, he has the explosiveness to chase down a running back on the back side.

According to Pro Football Focus, Gary was one of the best run defenders in this edge class as well as the country last season, even with the shoulder injury. And despite criticisms about his effort level—something against which both Brian Gutekunst and this author has pushed back—Gary chases hard down the line and even down the field to make plays.

This is pure athleticism from Gary. If he plays hard, he should just luck into some TFLs because he’s so gifted as a mover for his size. Nuance will be the next step. Harness that athleticism and start setting up offensive tackles. He has the lateral quickness and agility to do almost anything on a football field, so start building counters into his game.

With his length and strength, the rip and swim moves should become second-nature to him, but look at the way Clowney handles the tackle on this play. He doesn’t even need his hands, just his lateral quickness and ability to change direction with burst. This might as well be teaching tape for Gary, who absolutely has the athletic ability to whip a tackle like this.

Notice that the end of the play looks like the clip we saw of Gary running the back down. That ability to close with force to the ball carrier is another trait they share. We know a player with Gary’s pedigree and physical gifts has that in his bag. The next step will be finding ways to be in position more often to use that facet of his skillset.

In the NFL, Gary will have to defeat more blocks to make these kinds of plays in the run game, not simply run hard and fast. Playing with force and intention provides a baseline and his talent provides the ceiling. Technique and refinement unlock the combination of the two.

Perhaps the most underrated element of the Gary pick stems from a skill we aren’t even positive he’ll ever possess. But if he does develop it, it could become an essential part of this defense under Mike Pettine. While Michigan didn’t ask their hulking top recruit to drop in coverage much, he has the movement skills to do it.

South Carolina didn’t ask Clowney to drop because why would they? He’s a freak. Brian Gutekunst answered this question in free agency. Now that Green Bay has three other players, thanks to Kyler Fackrell and the Acme Sackers, the onus doesn’t fall on Gary to have to go chase around quarterbacks every play.

Those double A-gap blitzes we discussed earlier only work if it’s not always the guys mugging the A-gaps who come. If Gary only ever blitzes from the middle of the field, or the edge for that matter, the Packers become predictable by formation. If he can learn to drop in coverage, Pettine can become more multiple with his blitz looks, and actually has other players now who he can trust to put pressure on opposing passers.

Gary has a long way to go before he can make a play like this one from Clowney, but with even better movement skills, and the supreme football intelligence Michigan coaches insist Gary possesses, it’s hardly crazy to believe this could become part of his arsenal.

To reiterate, Gary should not be compared to Clowney in terms of prospect quality. They’re not the same. On the other hand, plenty of smart NFL evaluators believed he was a top-10 talent even if Draft Twitter (and this author) didn’t agree.

Clowney produced at a higher level, wrecked games more consistently in college, and was a better pure pass rusher coming out. Gary is bigger, a little stronger, and more athletic. There’s obvious evidence to suggest the best way to get the best from Gary is to try and use him like Clowney given the overlap in skill sets. That athletic potential, the ability to play a player who can move like him all over the field, offers a unique versatility the Packers haven’t had since Clay Matthews in his prime.

But even Matthews couldn’t line up at outside linebacker just as easily as defensive tackle or over at 5-technique. There’s nowhere in the front seven Rashan Gary can’t play. It would be a waste to pigeonhole him at one spot. Use him like the Texans use Clowney and he can unlock his estimable potential. Play him in the same places: everywhere.