GREEN BAY, Wis. – Za’Darius Smith’s loss is Jonathan Garvin’s gain.
“That’s how I view it,” Garvin said after Saturday’s practice. “I talked to Z, of course, and he’s like, ‘Man, this is a great opportunity for you.’ I see it as such. Of course, I want everyone on the team to be healthy but I’m glad I get to play. I really work hard so I can play. It’s going to be a good opportunity for me.”
With Smith sent to injured reserve with the goal of getting him past his lengthy back problem, Rashan Gary and Preston Smith will be the starting duo at outside linebacker for Monday night’s game against the Detroit Lions. With Gary elevated into the starting lineup, Garvin is now the top backup.
A seventh-round pick in 2020, Garvin played 27 snaps (44 percent) vs. the Saints last week. That’s more than he played for a huge stretch of his rookie season, when he played 64 snaps in the first five games and 21 in the final 11 – 21 snaps in Games 6 through 8 and zero after that.
Garvin’s rookie season was thrown for a loss on two fronts. First, because of COVID, there was no preseason. Then, he said he “got way heavier than I’ve ever been in my life.” That took away some of his speed and stamina.
Garvin arrived for his second training camp in better shape, and the three-game preseason allowed him to knock off months of rust.
“It made me get used to playing football again, really,” Garvin said. “That’s the first thing, especially considering last year, at the end of the year, I didn’t play for a while. It made me get used to what it’s like to be in a game, to be in that environment and everything. Really, when I talk about experience, it was a lot of things that I learned just over these few preseason games and then the training camp that last year I never had the opportunity to learn; I just was in the game. Experience shows, no matter the body type or how strong or powerful you are. Experience makes a difference in how you play, and the difference between a lot of plays vs. not making any plays at all is being in the right position.”
After falling off the radar last year, with Randy Ramsey winning the No. 4 outside linebacker job because of his play on special teams, Garvin impressed position coach Mike Smith during training camp this summer and won a spot on the roster.
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“Garvin’s a damn good football player,” Smith said in August. “The one thing I love about him is he knows who he is. He’s not going to go out there and try to be flashy and do all this finesse stuff. It’s his strength. You can ask any of those offensive linemen, they struggle with him. There’s a lot of things that we’ve got to clean up with him, and he’s still learning – a lot like Rashan was his first year – but he’s going to be a damn good football player. One of the smartest, if not the smartest, in the room. Picks up things very, very fast. He’s going to have a great career. Just love his demeanor. I want to see his birth certificate. I think he’s 35. He’s got an old soul. But he’s going to be a good player. He’s still got a lot of growing to do, but he’s going to be a special player in this league.”
Garvin, the second-youngest player on the team at age 22, was asked about his strength and intelligence on Saturday.
First, the intelligence.
“I just pay attention. That’s all I can say. I pay attention, I go home and study,” Garvin said. “I’m not going to sit here and claim to be the smartest man in the world or boast about it, but I pick up things when it comes to football relatively quickly. If I don’t pick it up, I’m going to go home and study it. Either way, I’m going to figure it out before too long.”
Second, as Smith put it, Garvin’s “grown-man strength.” Smith said All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari had told him that he struggles against Garvin’s power.
“Now, it’s possibly the basis of my pass rush, I would say,” Garvin said. “It’s not in a bad way. It doesn’t mean that I’m slow or anything but using your power, using what you do best sets up everything else. And then as far as playing the run, of course, that’s always great being able to hold the edge and being able to enforce your will wherever you want to go or, if one person is trying to go one way, you can prevent that and force him to go another way against his will. That’s where strength and really leverage comes into play all the time. Sometimes, it’s not always strength. You’ve got to have the proper leverage to move people out of the way when you need to.”
Now, with Smith out for at least the next three games, the Packers need Garvin’s strength and intelligence to come together to be that “special” player that Smith projected. Against the Saints last week, Garvin didn’t even show up on the stat sheet. He had zero tackles and, in seven pass-rushing attempts, zero pressures on Jameis Winston.
“One thing – it’s the obvious thing, I would say – I’m not Z so I won’t be as he is; I’ll be as I am and do the best that I can,” Garvin said.