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Rashan Gary is making the Packers’ patience with former top-15 draft pick pay off

Plenty in Cheesehead Nation scratched their heads over the selection of an underwhelming Michigan defensive end in the top half of the draft. But smart teams don’t draft players for their first year and Rashan Gary is showing why in 2020.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers
Rashan Gary took Matthew Stafford down twice on Sunday and leads the Packers in both pressures and sacks.
Appleton Post-Crescent-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Mike Smith isn’t surprised the bust label hasn’t stuck on Rashan Gary despite a quiet rookie season. In fact, to hear the Green Bay Packers’ outside linebackers coach, long Gary’s biggest fan, those takes are going to come back to bite fans ... maybe even literally.

“He texted me last night at 12:30 asking me the three things he can work on on his off-day today,” Smith said during training camp.

“And he is meaner than a rattlesnake. Guys like that don’t fail.”

The Detroit Lions offensive tackles felt the venom from Gary on Sunday, as he put up four pressures and 1.5 sacks. Through two weeks, the former 12th overall pick leads the team in pressures and is a half-sack off Za’Darius Smith’s team lead. After playing 23% of snaps last season, the former five star recruit logged over 50% of snaps in each of the first two games of the season but still lagged behind the Smith Brothers. Producing with more opportunities makes sense, but he’s producing like the best edge defender on the team despite playing fewer snaps.

For the second straight week, a Gary pressure turned into an interception. In week one it was a beautiful snag by Jaire Alexander against Kirk Cousins, then Chandon Sullivan broke on an out route against Matthew Stafford for a pick-six on Sunday.

“On Jaire’s interception, even the play before that, both those stunts he was coming inside, he affected the quarterback. You look at it, the quarterback couldn’t completely go through his motion. He had a lot of great rushes, but there’s still things we have to clean up,” Smith said after the Vikings game.

“He had some great effort plays. You guys watch the film, he’s all over the place.”

That won’t be enough for some fans who insist the Packers wasted the 12th overall pick last year when they took Gary. he didn’t play a position of need with Preston and Za’Darius Smith on board. They could have taken any of the big-name receivers or a long-term right tackle option instead. Gary’s inability to make it on the field as a rookie amplified the cries of “bust,” especially when so many fans preferred Brian Burns, who showed plenty of promise as a rookie.

But drafting a player for his first season would be like buying a car for its resale value after driving it off the lot. That’s not how this works. Rookies tend to be bad, even if they turn out to be terrific players. Just look at the No. 3 overall pick on Sunday. Cornerback Jeff Okudah, considered a borderline generational cornerback talent out of Ohio State, allowed 121 yards on 10 targets, with 7 caught on him. That includes a drop by Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Davante Adams took him to school.

We don’t need to look any further for more proof of this than our own backyard. Nearly every one of Green Bay’s best players were varying degrees of “not good” as rookies. Let’s look back at APC’s 90-man roster ranking and check out how each of the top-10 guys progressed using PFF grades. It’s not a perfect measure, but it’s helpful to identify outliers and trends.

It quickly becomes obvious nearly every one of Green Bay’s stars needed time to blossom.

David Bakhtiari

Year 1: 69 overall grade
Year 2: 72.2 overall grade
Year 3 76 overall grade

It’s not until Year 4 in 2016 when Bakhtiari jumps to 86.6 with a pass blocking grade in the 90’s. That was also his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection

Za’Darius Smith

Year 1: 58.8 overall grade
Year 2: 54.1 overall grade
Year 3: 60.5 overall grade

Big Z doesn’t even crack 70 until Year 5, his first with the Packers and his breakout season. His quality pressure rates as a part-time player hinted at a guy who could do more with more opportunities, but Brian Gutekunst took a massive leap of faith when he got Smith a gargantuan deal last offseason.

Aaron Rodgers

Year 1: 30.3 overall grade
Year 2: 66.1 overall grade
Year 3: 79.1 overall grade

Hindsight makes Pro Bowlers of every great player earlier than they deserve it, but Rodgers in particular gets remembered for his early success yet as a rookie, he was brutally bad. Looked lost in the preseason, airmailing throws and the few plays he did get as a rookie overwhelmed him.

Davante Adams

Year 1: 63.2
Year 2: 59.1
Year 3: 72.6

Adams, like many of the players on this list, actually comes through as a star in Year 4 and now in Year 7 looks like he has a case to be the best receiver in the league. Injuries scuttled a promising second season getting more opportunities with Jordy Nelson out for the year, but we saw the juice in 2016; that was when he started to announce his arrival in the NFL as a future star. Run The Table™ happened as much because Rodgers started trusting Adams and Adams paid off that trust.

Kenny Clark

Year 1: 74.8
Year 2: 87.3
Year 3: 90.2

Clark could end up being Gary’s best comparison in terms of his trajectory. Playing next to Mike Daniels, Clark flashed his incredible athletic traits, but only played a little over 400 snaps and managed 15 pressures. With almost 700 snaps in Year 2, Clark burst onto the scene looking like one of the best young interior players in football.

Gary played 278 snaps as a rookie and looks to make a Clark-like jump in playing time in 2020.

Jaire Alexander

Year 1: 72.4
Year 2: 71.3
Year 3: 86.3 (through two games)

Alexander carried himself like a star right away, making splash plays and demonstrating the potential to be one the game’s best cornerbacks, but he was still a rookie cornerback, making some coverage mistakes, missing some tackles, and letting too many opportunities slip through his fingers. After a hot start to 2019, Alexander likewise cooled off, hitting a bit of a sophomore slump with Amari Cooper torching him in Dalas. So far in 2020, Alexander’s play puts him in the conversation with the best defensive backs in the NFL.

Preston Smith

Year 1: 64.4
Year 2: 63.8
Year 3: 63.7

Coincidentally, Smith’s best season from a PFF grade standpoint wasn’t his breakout statistical performance last year in Green Bay, but rather his final year in Washington before becoming a free agent. Smith is off to a slow start in 2020, but with Gary and Z taking up so much attention, expect to see Smith get back on track. Either way, it took him three years to start to fulfill the promise of his talents.

Aaron Jones

Year 1: 78.8
Year 2: 80.7
Year 3: 84.8

Mike McCarthy may have been the only guy who didn’t see Jones’ talent right away, but he also needed time to bulk up and get his body used to carrying an NFL workload. His first two seasons, Jones struggled with injuries and it took Matt LaFleur’s arrival in Green Bay to fully realize his potential. He’s also been aided by the presence of Jamaal Williams, who can take the power runs and pass protection duties and lighten some of Jones’ hit load.

Elgton Jenkins

Year 1: 69.1
Year 2: TBD
Year 3: TBD

Jenkins may very well be the best Packers rookie of the decade. His overall grade doesn’t tell the story, he posted an 89.3 pass blocking grade, which is an ungodly number for a rookie. He came in for Lane Taylor last year and immediately played at or near a Pro Bowl level. He’s the exception not the rule, but given his quality of play, Green Bay could legitimately view this as getting a top-15 player from this class in the second round when they took Jenkins, particularly if he ends up as the long-term solution at right tackle.

Corey Linsley

Year 1: 76.7
Year 2: 79.0
Year 3: 76.4

Linsley’s best season to date started in Minnesota. He’s been an absolute rock inside for the Packers in 2020 and deserves more credit than he’s received in his career for being a top-tier player. Ever since ESPN debuted Pass Block Win Rate, he’s crushed the competition there and much like Jenkins, came into the league as a quality pass protector. Green Bay’s ability to find offensive linemen over the years has truly been special. One could make the case if Jenkins isn’t the best Packers rookie of the last decade, it’s Linsley.