GREEN BAY, Wis. – For the Green Bay Packers, the road to Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Ariz., will begin this week with the start of offseason practices.
To be sure, nothing will be settled during two weeks of voluntary organized team activities, the mandatory minicamp, and one more week of OTAs. Still, what happens on the practice field will set the stage for the start of training camp in a little more than two months.
This series of positional previews continues with the outside linebackers.
The Sure Things: Rashan Gary and Preston Smith
The media pundits didn’t like the selection of Gary with the 12th selection of the 2019 draft. His elite traits notwithstanding, where was the production while at Michigan?
Gary delivered production beyond his 9.5 sacks in 2021. Of the 56 edge defenders with at least 300 rushes, Gary ranked first in ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-rushing productivity, which measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rushing snap. He ranked second in the NFL in pressures (81) and pass-rush win rate (26.0 percent).
Smith answered the critics, too. Coming off a miserable 2020, Smith agreed to an incentives-laden contract renegotiation and recorded nine sacks. He tied for 13th in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity and set a career high with 62 pressures. The big season earned him a contract extension.
Gary and Smith were the only teammates to finish in the top 13 in PFF’s PRP.
The Big Mystery: Coaching Change
Smith, who will turn 30 in November, has a bizarre history of yo-yo’ing production. In four odd-numbered seasons, Smith has 37 sacks and seven forced fumbles. In three even-numbered seasons, he has 12.5 sacks and zero forced fumbles. It’s a history he acknowledged at the start of offseason workouts in April.
“People are going to put that hotter iron to your rear end,” new outside linebackers coach Jason Rebrovich said last week. “You’re either going to let it burn or you’re going to take off and get away from it. I think he’s going to take it man-to-man and take it by the face and understand that I am going to get better from this, and he will.”
The bigger question mark is the change of position coaches, with Mike Smith heading to Minnesota (where he’ll coach Za’Darius Smith) and being replaced by Rebrovich.
A day after the season-ending loss to San Francisco, Gary got “a little choked up” when talking about what Smith had meant to his career. It was Smith who had Gary’s back from the start and helped turn him into a budding star.
Will Rebrovich have that same personal touch? And will he be able to find depth where almost none existed last season?
“I think he’s a guy that is going to bring a lot of energy and a lot of juice,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “He’s going to demand a lot from the players. I think he’s going to build those connections.”
Worth Watching: Kingsley Enagbare
Last season, the returning trio of Jonathan Garvin (1.5 sacks, five quarterback hits), Tipa Galeai (one sack, one quarterback hit) and La’Darius Hamilton (zero sacks, two quarterback hits) combined for 2.5 sacks and eight quarterback hits in 611 defensive snaps. Also last season, Gary had 9.5 sacks and 28 quarterback hits in 681 defensive snaps. The dropoff was as steep as the sides of the Grand Canyon.
With Za’Darius Smith in Minnesota and Whitney Mercilus in retirement, the Packers desperately need someone to provide depth. Perhaps that will be Kingsley Enagbare, a fifth-round pick from South Carolina. He tested horribly at the Scouting Combine and pro day but put up good production. While he posted a modest 4.5 sacks in 2021, he drew six holding penalties – second-most in the draft class.
“Love him. Love his length, love his ability, very, very smart in the classroom,” Rebrovich said. “He’s a cerebral kid, understands stuff, transitions from the classroom on the field. We got some technique stuff we’ve got to clean up and work up a little bit but, first impression, he’s done a really, really outstanding job.”
While it’s impossible to draw conclusions about the big guys in the trenches during these shorts-and-helmets practices, an outside linebacker’s ability to beat an offensive tackle in May tends to translate to August and beyond.