Rashan Gary has heard it all through two and a half years in the NFL.
Bust. Reach. Overrated. Overhyped.
When you are the 12th overall pick in the draft, a set of expectations are immediately placed on you by fans and media alike. You’re expected to contribute immediately and while you’re not quite in that elite “top 10 pick” group, you are close enough that many fans feel you should be showing up positively on the box score each week.
Early on for Gary, that wasn’t the case, but that was fine with the Green Bay Packers even if it drove some of their passionate fans into a tizzy for the next two years. Ever a draft-and-develop team, the Packers were more than okay with letting Gary develop despite some head scratching over the pick from the outside.
Gary was selected just over a month after Green Bay stunned many observers and opened up their wallet and signed both Za’Darius and Preston Smith, two of the most prized pass rushers in 2019’s free agency class. Edge rusher was not exactly high on the need list for the Packers and many expected the team to grab either a safety or a receiver (they of course did draft Darnell Savage later on with their other first round pick that year).
General manager Brian Gutekunst, as we have noticed since, can’t pass up a strong athlete and Gary was a borderline freak, posting a near-perfect relative athletic score of 9.95. The Packers knew what they were getting even if everyone else was a little perplexed. A team could never have enough pass rush and the Packers were planning on developing one of the league’s best between Gary and the two Smiths.
The thing with NFL player development is it is rarely a straight line. When Gary was selected, he was coming off a season in which he dealt with a nagging shoulder injury that cost him part of September and all of October. He finished his final season at Michigan with only 3.5 sacks, something many skeptics pointed to when questioning where he was drafted.
His rookie season was not anything remarkable, fueling the argument that the Packers reached when they selected him so highly. He recorded two sacks, 21 total tackles, and only five quarterback pressures. The Smith brothers meanwhile had a dynamite season and became folk legends in 2019. Za’Darius Smith racked up 13.5 sacks while Preston Smith recorded 12. Gary was the forgotten man in the room, at least among fans.
With the Smiths stealing the show, this allowed Gary to develop at his own pace. The team didn’t need him to be their top pass rusher immediately and this was a move that would pay off down the road.
Year two saw Gary experience the sophomore leap many coaches talk about, albeit later in the season. He finished the year with five sacks and 19 quarterback pressures. Half of his sacks came in the final five games of the year and more than half of his pressures came in the final seven games. With Preston Smith struggling in 2020, 2021 was looking to be the year Gary would emerge as a premier pass rusher and make maximum use of his borderline freakish athletic ability.
After yesterday’s 24-10 win over the Washington Football Team, we can safely say Gary has arrived and it is a beautiful sight to behold.
It was a moment we really should have seen coming. Gary had already tallied 25 quarterback pressures through six games and although he had only recorded 1.5 sacks through the first six games, he was a disruptive force as rusher and was making life all sorts of difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
He finally broke through against Washington. His third quarter strip sack of Taylor Heinicke set up the touchdown that in hindsight put the game out of reach, but Gary didn’t stop there. He was in on the fourth down stop of Heinicke that produced a (gasp!) goal line stop. He also got another two half-sacks in the fourth quarter, splitting one with Dean Lowry and another with Kingsley Keke. In short, Gary was a force of nature.
After yesterday’s game, he is now at 3.5 sacks and a whopping 35 quarterback pressures and his arrival could not have come at a better time with Preston Smith missing his first game of his career and Za’Darius Smith on injured reserve. Just imagine what the Packers could do with Gary, two healthy Smiths, and Kenny Clark up front wrecking offensive lines.
A strong pass rush is crucial to keeping a defense afloat when the group is as beat up in the secondary as the Packers are and Gary has emerged as a key cog in keeping the motor running with the Smiths and Jaire Alexander out. He was pegged by many as a breakout candidate this season and has started delivering on that promise he showed at Michigan.
That’s why Gary should finally stop hearing words like bust and reach and instead should start hearing some new ones. Stud. Beast. Destroyer of worlds.
If he can keep up this production, there might even be one more word Gary could hear thrown his way.