Within the next week, the Green Bay Packers are expected to have both rookies and veterans report for training camp. One of the largest individual storylines surrounding the summer, as well as the 2020 campaign, will be the development of one of its returning players: Rashan Gary.
The Packers’ 2019 first-round pick displayed flashes and increased pressures at the end of the year, but a two-sack rookie season did little to ease the doubts many had about Gary’s athleticism matching his production coming out of college. However, some of Gary’s elite potential could be realized by adding an interior focus to his game without sacrificing his position on the edge.
Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine admitted that Za’Darius Smith (Z) and Preston Smith (P) perhaps played too many snaps in 2019 and that Gary should have an increased workload in year two to help his stat line. But there are opportunities to keep the Smith brothers on the field and also employ a third edge rusher at the same time.
There were moments last season when all three players found themselves on the field on passing downs and Z and Gary were lined up side-by-side. However, oftentimes Gary would be lined up outside with Z acting as the more inside man in a three-technique position. There was nothing wrong with this — Z created a lot of pressure from this position. But Z was incredibly effective from the outside as well and Gary’s experience as a defensive end in a four-man front at Michigan makes him a perfect candidate to move inside the tackle in these situations more frequently. In rare instances, the Packers did this and there were positives in both defensive phases, such as the clips below against Washington and Seattle.
This might just be my favorite @RashanAGary rush of the season. It was a big 3rd down right before the Seahawks missed the long FG attempt. Wilson's initial read was to the right side & Gary's pressure ruined that. Had he not got hit by some friendly fire he may have had the sack pic.twitter.com/Xqh0DPmAIk— Andy Herman (@AndyHermanNFL) January 17, 2020
Gary’s quickness, to go along with more than adequate size (6-foot-5, 277 pounds), is a large factor in allowing him to attack more from the inside. Some believed in the pre-draft process that Gary’s best NFL fit was as a three-technique in a 4-3 scheme where he could fire through gaps with his quick first step and win with his power and ability to gain leverage. This may actually make Gary more effective in generating pressure as he continues to develop his secondary pass rush moves to beat offensive tackles off something other than his bull rush.
While Gary can be expected to continue to be an edge rusher in the Packers’ primary 3-4 defense on early downs, there is no reason he could not line up between the guard and tackle on third down to maximize his talents while letting the Smiths wreak havoc. Replace Z in the example below with Gary, who could begin to command some double-teams, and one of the Smiths could break free while the other continues to cause trouble from the other side.
Expect to see more Z inside this season. If Rashan Gary can just be solid outside, the #Packers can get so much better. Big Z next to Kenny Clark is ☠️☠️☠️ https://t.co/HXovzAdqtX— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) July 15, 2020
Even if the Packers choose not to line Gary up inside with his hand in the dirt, he could still be a factor rushing from the inside. Just look at Z, a player with similar athleticism and skills.
Smith was a terror attacking the middle in 2019. He rushed the passer on stunts and even acted as a down lineman in two-man fronts on a few passing downs. The Packers saw a ton of effectiveness with Smith lined up from multiple positions and surprising defenses, including as a blitzer up the middle. Gary could be used in a similar way to take advantage of even more speed, especially with his gap-shooting tools already sufficient.
Without a doubt, Gary will primarily be an edge rushing linebacker once again in 2020. But what makes Gary such a potential asset in year two is his rather untapped ability to attack the interior. Unfortunately, the coronavirus could impact Gary’s increased versatility, especially with limited preseason game experience to continue developing. But this particular area of his game is an intriguing one to watch as on-field instruction begins once again.