GREEN BAY, Wis. – In a tradition that stretches more than a decade, here is our annual ranking of the 90 players on the Green Bay Packers’ roster. This isn’t merely a look at the best players. Rather, it’s a formula that combines talent, salary, importance of the position, depth at the position and, for young players, draft positioning. More than the ranking, we hope you learn a little something about every player on the roster.
No. 24: OLB Rashan Gary (6-5, 277, second year, Michigan)
Whether it’s a 3-4 outside linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end, edge defenders always will be measured by sacks. By that standard, Gary, the 12th pick of the 2019 draft, had a disappointing rookie season.
Gary tied for 17th in the entire draft class with two sacks. The fourth edge rusher off the board, Gary ranked 13th in the edge-rusher class in snaps. Brian Burns, the former Florida State standout who went No. 16 to Carolina, had 7.5 sacks. Montez Sweat, the former Mississippi State star who went No. 26 to Washington, had 7.0 sacks. Gary’s former Michigan teammate, Chase Winovich, who went in the third round at No. 77 to New England, had 5.5 sacks. Of the 32 first-round draft picks, 18 started at least half the games and 29 started at least once. Gary didn't start at all.
Some of that was due to the dominance of The Smith Bros., who combined for 25.5 sacks. However, instead of coming on strong down the stretch, Gary played nine snaps against Seattle and three against San Francisco in the playoff games.
While the progress wasn’t evident to most observers, it was the behind-the-scenes stuff that had position coach Mike Smith feeling especially optimistic a few days after the Week 10 game against Carolina. When Gary first arrived, “I thought his head was going to explode,” Smith said because of all the techniques and nuances he had to learn at a totally new position. As the season progressed, Smith saw the mental side of the game begin to click.
“There was a play in practice last week and it just gave me goosebumps,” Smith said, pulling up his right sleeve and rubbing his arm. “I’m looking at Gary, and he gets up there and he points like ‘Toss, toss, toss.’ Gets up, lines up, goes and makes the play. That’s a big play and a big thing for a rookie. I make him stand by me so he can spit it out. That’s when you know, that’s when you play fast. Show me a guy, and it’s going to be rare, that doesn’t understand backfield sets, that’s going to be successful year in and year out in the league. It is rare. I haven’t seen one yet in 12 years … That’s how Gary’s going be great, because he has all the tools.”
The starting point in those tools is his elite combination of size and athleticism. The size made him an instant factor. With 30 tackles in 244 snaps, he averaged a tackle every 8.13 snaps, about 3.5 snaps better than runner-up Preston Smith among the outside linebackers.
“I was expecting that,” Smith said in that November conversation. “That’s one thing I loved about Gary, watching him on college tape. He was a nasty college football player. He’s tough. He was mean. You’re drawn to that when you’re watching it.”
Added defensive coordinator Mike Pettine in May: “He was one of our better guys when we went back and just looked at outside ‘backers setting an edge in the run game, just how physical and how violent Rashan was against tight ends and certain blocking patterns that we realized, hey, we need to get him on the field more.”
The key for Gary in Year 2 will be turning it loose. As Smith said last year, you “can’t be half-pregnant.” In other words, Gary needs to continue his mental development, trust what he sees and go for it.
“That’s something that I’m trying to work on,” Gary said. “Me, I want everything to be perfect. Every time I’m on the field, I want to do my job to the best of my ability, but also he wants me to loosen up, have fun and make some plays. Don’t be scared of messing up more than making a big play. Every day, I’m getting better and better. Now, it’s time to loosen up.”
What gives him a chance: Kyler Fackrell signed with the Giants in free agency, leaving a void of 415 snaps. With the desire to reduce some of the Smiths’ workloads, there are a lot of snaps available. “I do think at times where Preston and Z probably played maybe a little too much, that we do want to take some off their plate,” Pettine said in May. “I do know Rashan is certainly built to handle giving those guys a break. I just think because of his skill-set, we can use him more like we used Z, on third down especially. He can kick down inside and rush from a tackle spot as opposed to always being on the edge.”