Forget about a sophomore slump; the Green Bay Packers are expecting big things from outside linebacker Rashan Gary in his second NFL season.
Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine spoke highly of the 2019 first-round draft pick during his first offseason teleconference with reporters, setting the bar high for Gary as he shifts into a “significantly increased” role for the 2020 season behind Za’Darius and Preston Smith.
“We’re looking forward to Rashan making a big jump,” Pettine said. “He needs to take a big jump. And when you go back and look at last year’s tape, he did some really good things for us for the time he was in there. Kyler (Fackrell) played a lot, too, and did some good things for us within that room, but I do see Rashan taking a significantly increased role.”
Pettine went on to describe Gary’s expanded role as one that would help alleviate some of the strain put on the Smith Bros., admitting the team’s star pass rushers “probably played a little too much in 2019.” The Smiths each played 84% of defensive snaps for the Packers last year, while Fackrell (40%) and Gary (24%) played considerably less behind them.
“We want to take some off their plate, so I do know that Rashan is certainly built to handle giving those guys a break,” Pettine said. “I just think because of his skill set, we can use him more like we’ve used Z, on third down especially, that he can kick down inside and rush from a tackle spot as opposed to always being on the edge.”
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Packers Plan to Play Gary With Smith Bros. at Times
The Packers essentially introduced three first-year outside linebackers into Pettine’s system last year with Gary and the Smiths, which meant the third-year defensive coordinator needed some time to figure out how to make the best use of each one’s skill sets.
For instance, as Pettine learned more about Za’Darius Smith’s versatility, he began occasionally shifting him inside with the defensive line on plays he considered “very efficient” for the Packers. He also did the same thing with Gary; though, to a much lesser extent.
“It was kind of a win-win because we wanted to take some reps out of the D-line room and we knew we had some depth in the outside ‘backer room, so basically using Z as that walk-around defensive lineman,” Pettine said. “That’s something we’ll certainly continue to look at and have that package evolve because that will allow us to have Rashan, Z and Preston all on the field together. Rashan proved to us that he’s a guy that can not only rush outside, but he can rush inside. He didn’t get that many opportunities to do it during the season, but we certainly think that is a role that he can take on.”
Pettine doesn’t just see Gary as a support player, either. While his reps were limited as a rookie, Gary impressed Pettine enough on tape with his capabilities against the run game to make him consider how he might go about getting the young pass rusher more involved earlier on.
“I do think he can play more on early downs,” Pettine said. “He was one of our better guys when we went back and looked at outside ‘backers, setting an edge in the run game, just how physical and violent Rashan was against tight ends and certain blocking patterns that we realized, ‘Hey, we need to get him on the field more.'”