Brian Gutekunst sees promise in Rashan Gary, 2019 draft class

LB Rashan Gary
LB Rashan Gary

GREEN BAY – The Packers made a major investment in the future of their pass rush last offseason when they signed Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith as unrestricted free agents, and drafted Rashan Gary with the 12th overall pick.

The Smiths turned out to be the impact players Green Bay needed on defense, tallying 111 tackles, 60 quarterback hits and 25½ sacks together. Each started all 16 regular-season games and rarely left the field, combining for 1,742 defensive snaps.

In the meantime, the 21-year-old Gary soaked up everything he could behind the Smiths and fourth-year veteran Kyler Fackrell. In 244 defensive snaps (23.5%), the 6-foot-5, 277-pound linebacker amassed 21 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery.

As the Packers transition into the offseason, General Manager Brian Gutekunst envisions Gary having a more substantial role on defense in 2020.

"I thought he contributed quite a bit," Gutekunst said. "He was behind two really, really good players and he didn't see probably the normal amount of snap time that you would get from a first-round draft pick. But when he was in there, I thought he affected the game."

A highly touted recruit at the University of Michigan, Gary solidified his status as a top prospect when he ran a 4.58 time in the 40-yard dash with 26 bench reps of 225 pounds and a 38-inch vertical at last February's NFL Scouting Combine.

Gutekunst feels that explosiveness was "very evident" during Gary's rookie season. He played two of his best games down the stretch, recording three tackles and a sack against Chicago in Week 15 before adding two tackles and a pressure in only 10 snaps against Seattle in the NFC Divisional playoffs.

Moving forward, Gutekunst sees Gary filling a very similar role to Za'Darius Smith as an outside linebacker who can rush not only off the edge but also in a variety of ways from the interior.

"Similar to 'Z' when 'Z' was young, I think he's growing into it," Gutekunst said. "You'd really like to have a lot of versatility within that group so you can do a lot of that, move guys around so that offensive linemen can't get a bead on where they're coming from."

Green Bay had two other rookies – safety Darnell Savage and left guard Elgton Jenkins  – named to the Pro Football Writers of America's All-Rookie Team earlier this month.

Savage, the Packers' other first-round selection, displayed the speed and ranginess in 14 starts that made him one of the most coveted defensive backs in last year's NFL Draft.

While Savage's 4.36-second time in the 40 at the combine helped make him the first DB to be drafted last April, it was his ability to grasp the playbook that enabled Savage to step in as a starter from the start of the offseason program.

An ankle injury cost Savage two October starts but the 5-foot-11, 198-pound safety still finished with 55 tackles, two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles during his debut season.

"I thought his progression through an NFL season of 20-some games, including the preseason, I think he did a really nice job," Gutekunst said. "I'm excited for his future. His ability to get off the hash and close gaps and trigger in the run game, I think he's got a bright future ahead of him."

Despite starting at center during his final two seasons at Mississippi State, the 6-foot-5, 310-pound Jenkins was lauded for possessing across-the-line versatility leading up to the NFL Draft.

Jenkins was in the running for a starting role from the onset of training camp, which more than prepared the rookie second-round pick for his 14 starts at left guard after starter Lane Taylor  was lost for the season due to a bicep injury suffered in practice.

Pro Football Focus didn't attribute a sack to Jenkins on any of his 694 pass-blocking snaps in 2019. He was one of only four guards with more than 600 pass-blocking snaps who didn't allow a sack in PFF's metric, alongside Dallas' Zack Martin, Indianapolis' Quenton Nelson and Buffalo's Quinton Spain.

"He stepped in there really early when Lane went down and it was like we didn't miss a beat," Gutekunst said. "He's got a rare ability as far as his size, his athleticism and his power.

"He was a really good player for us this year and has a chance to be, if he really puts his mind to it, he has a chance to be one of the guys like we've had here in the past – the Josh Sittons, T.J. Langs, Marco Riveras, Mike Wahles."

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