Nearly all of this year’s draft picks for the Green Bay Packers have been showing off why they were sought after coming out of college, but top pick Rashan Gary — who was taken No. 12 overall — has been one generating the wrong type of buzz through the first half of the preseason schedule.
Gary has played 66 defensive snaps and another four on special teams in the first two games, but the Packers rookie has yet to record a single tackle, drawing criticism from fans who were hoping to see the former Michigan edge rusher shine immediately.
No such expectations resided with Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, though. He confirmed as much Saturday when he told reporters “without a doubt” the Packers are pleased with his progress, saying they expected him to be a “work in progress” as they transitioned him from defensive end to outside linebacker.
“We’re pleased with where he is,” Pettine said. “Just teaching him the outside linebacker position, we knew that he was going to be a little bit of a work in progress because, as I said before, we’re teaching him all of it, so there are some things he’s doing now that he won’t necessarily be doing in the regular season, but as we get closer we’re going to start to hone that down and put him in position where we know he’s ready to excel.”
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A Mountain of Expectations
Gary wasn’t a first-rounder for nothing. Athleticism was the name of his game for the Wolverines, even if skeptics seemed to agree he produced too little as a rusher. But he flashed eye-popping numbers at the coming into the draft and, consequently, had big expectations thrust upon his shoulders before the Packers even selected him.
Gary’s pre-draft confidence showed he believed he could live up to them, too. He talked with the Detroit Free Press at the NFL Combine about wanting teams to know he was the best player in the 2019 pool. “Offensively. Defensively. Period.”
Gary impressed early on in training camp, particularly in 1-on-1 drills against teammates and Texans alike. According to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky, he won matchups against a pair of Houston’s best linemen during the teams’ joint practices in Green Bay two weeks ago.
Once fans got televised look at Gary, though, against the Texans and Ravens in the preseason, the clamor began about whether earlier concerns about his productivity in the NFL should have been heeded.
At Baltimore, some took issue with Gary’s ability to turn the corner, as he blew by quarterbacks more than once after beating the block. Other criticisms included slow reaction times or poor reads on the rookie’s part.
According to Plan
Gary’s blueprint in Green Bay, however, always included a transitional period as they converted him into a role that better suited their defensive scheme under Pettine.
“I think it’s a transition to a position that he hasn’t played a lot of, so I think that’s difficult,” said Pettine, who enters his second season leading the Packers’ defense. “He’s not coming in playing something he’s played for years and years.”
Pettine complimented Gary on doing a “nice job” on his rush opportunities in the first two games, while also acknowledging that Baltimore’s pass game — led by mobile-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson — limited chances for extended dropbacks in coverage.
SBNation’s Peter Bukowski offered a more precise analysis on Gary’s performance against the Ravens, in which the Packers rookie played more than 50 percent of defensive snaps.
Pettine seemed to agree, saying Saturday he wants Gary and the rest of his guys to be “free and clear from a thinking standpoint” when they are out on the field.
“When guys can get lined up and know what to do, they play fast,” Pettine said. “But that just doesn’t happen overnight. It takes repetitions. I think that’s part of it, where (Gary) is. But as we start to pull back and have an understanding of, ‘Okay, here’s where he is now, here’s kind of his personal inventory, this is what he does well, this is what he needs to work on.’
Talent acquired in the offseason also helps. Edge rushers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith bring an influx of pressure to the defense while taking some off Gary’s immediate need to shine on the field. Gary will still be featured in the defensive scheme but at a pace that suits both him and the Packers.
“We’ll start to gear him as we’re looking forward to Chicago and Minnesota, those early games, to where can he best help us based on where he is now,” Pettine said, “and we’ll start to steer the scheme that direction with him.”