Just a few years ago the Green Bay Packers had a dynamic pair of signings to jump-start the pass rush that is fundamental to the defense’s success. Now, just a few short years later, we are looking at a vastly different landscape.
While there is much to say about the defense under defensive coordinator Joe Barry, getting consistent edge pressure would significantly change this defense. The loss of Rashan Gary mid-season in 2022 was a significant setback, forcing a few young players to step up. The group heading into 2023 is slightly more experienced but also features the drafting of a new athletic force.
Starters: Preston Smith, Lukas Van Ness
Preston Smith led the Packers in sacks last year with just 8.5, but part of the issue was the loss of Rashan Gary after just nine games. Gary had 6.0 sacks followed by Kenny Clark with 4.0. Of course, Preston is still a valuable force in holding the edge in the run game. Even when he does not make the tackle, he does well at pinning the edge and forcing the play down the line. Still, his sack numbers and QB pressures have tailed off in the last few years.
Lukas Van Ness was the Packers' first-round pick in 2023, and he is a massively athletic talent who will see plenty of playing time, especially as Rashan Gary recovers. Much has been said about the way Iowa did not give Van Ness the starting nod, but he saw plenty of snaps and had more than enough production. He is going to have to increase the outside pressure if this defense is going to have a chance to produce.
Pinning Van Ness on the rush edge could get some of the strength that helped the Packers down the stretch in 2021. Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts here, but there is a reason the Packers moved on an athletic pass-rushing edge early.
Backups: Kingsley Enagbare, Justin Hollins
Kingsley Enagbare is entering his second year out of South Carolina. He got to see the field a decent amount in his rookie campaign due to injuries, producing 3.0 sacks. He has shown some flash and ability as a pass rusher. His continued growth will be key to the team’s success. With the rotation early on, he is going to need to put up pressures. At 265 pounds, he can anchor well on the edge and will be needed to rotate in for Smith and Van Ness.
Justin Hollins returns for his first full year with the Packers. After being waived by the Los Angeles Rams mid-season, Hollins gave the Packers a spark in the pass-rushing game. He only accounted for 2.5 sacks after joining the team but could get the benefit of a full offseason in the system.
Neither Enagbare nor Hollins impress much if forced to start games, but in rotational roles, they are more than serviceable. It will be interesting to see how they produce as it gets closer to the point where Rashan Gary can return.
PUP List: Rashan Gary
Gary tore his ACL on November 6, 2022, in a loss against the Lions. Traditionally, this gives an expected 12 months to recover. The Packers are famously cautious about bringing back injured players, so we expect him to start the season on the PUP list. The earliest he would be allowed to come off the PUP list would be the October 9th game in Las Vegas. However, a full 12-month recovery would put him on the sidelines for the November 5th game against the Rams. Expect the Packers to take the 12 months and get him back in a home game.
Released: Brenton Cox
There’s just no room for Cox on this roster, though he could surprise at camp. He has good tools and was an effective pass rusher at Florida, but he was released from that program for a multitude of reasons, culminating in throwing a punch at a Georgia player mid-game. He will get his chance to let his play do the talking, but replacing Hollins or Enagbare is a large hurdle.