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Countdown to Camp: Packers look to restore, fortify edge rusher spot

Starters and depth return at inside linebacker for 2023

LB Rashan Gary
LB Rashan Gary

"Countdown to Camp" is a daily look at the Packers' roster, position by position, leading up to the start of training camp. The series continues with the linebackers.

GREEN BAY – The Packers' depth and playmaking at outside linebacker took a major hit last season when Rashan Gary went down with a knee injury in Week 9 at Detroit.

The hope is the landscape at that crucial defensive position will look a whole lot different in 2023.

First, the Packers expect to get Gary back from his long rehab at some point this season to rejoin the steady, reliable Preston Smith in the starting lineup. When exactly isn’t known, but Gary was on pace for his first double-digit sack season last year, with six through 8½ games, as he worked to build on his 9½-sack output (plus two in the playoffs) from 2021.

For his part, Smith posted 8½ sacks last season to go along with team-high totals in tackles for loss (nine) and QB hits (20, his most since 2019). Together, veterans Smith (6-5, 265) and Gary (6-5, 277) serve as leaders not only within their position group but for the defense as a whole, and reuniting the tandem on the field will be a welcome sight whenever it occurs.

Second, the Packers spent their first-round draft pick at No. 13 overall in April on an edge rusher, Iowa's Lukas Van Ness, who racked up 13½ sacks among 19½ tackles for loss over two seasons with the Hawkeyes before turning pro early. Van Ness (6-5, 272) began his college career as an interior defensive lineman before sliding outside, so his versatility brings possibilities to defensive coordinator Joe Barry's sub-packages as well.

Third, Kingsley Enagbare will be entering his second season after a solid rookie debut in 2022. A fifth-round pick from South Carolina, Enagbare (6-4, 258) started seven games and recorded three sacks along with three deflected passes a year ago, and progress from him is the plan and expectation.

Fourth, the Packers are curious what they might get from Justin Hollins over a full season. Claimed off waivers from the Rams two weeks after Gary's injury, the veteran Hollins (6-5, 248) – a fifth-round pick by Denver in 2019 – impressed in a short, six-game stint last year, posting 2½ sacks and four QB hits and then re-signing in the offseason as a potentially valuable depth piece.

The following is the sixth installment in a series of photos examining the Packers' roster position by position. This installment examines the linebackers.

On top of all that, the Packers also bring back Jonathan Garvin (6-4, 257) and La'Darius Hamilton (6-2, 261), who have flashed on occasion in part-time duty, and they've added two other rookies on the edge, undrafted Brenton Cox Jr. from Florida and Kenneth Odumegwu from the NFL International Player Pathway program.

Cox (6-4, 250) was a productive defender in the SEC with 15½ sacks among 34 tackles for loss, but he was dismissed from two programs (Georgia, Florida) for off-field issues that kept him off teams' draft boards. Odumegwu (6-6, 259), originally from Nigeria, began learning the game of football from scratch over the past year, and the Packers will have an extra/exempt practice-squad spot for him via the IPP for 2023.

At inside linebacker, 2021 All-Pro De'Vondre Campbell and 2022 first-round draft pick Quay Walker are back as the starting duo, both with something to prove.

Campbell was just starting to recapture his All-Pro form last year with a pick-six at Washington in Week 7 when a knee injury the following week at Buffalo sidelined him for the next four games. Upon his return, he had a crucial INT in the Christmas victory at Miami, but wound up statistically far off his '21 campaign.

Walker (6-4, 241) wound up leading the team in tackles (119) and forced fumbles (three) in a promising rookie season that was somewhat overshadowed by two in-game ejections resulting from personal fouls. Putting those behind him and maturing as a player are top priorities in Year 2.

That pair is backed up by third-year pro Isaiah McDuffie and veteran Eric Wilson, both special-teams standouts. McDuffie (6-1, 227) received a share of playing time on defense during Campbell's injury absence and acquitted himself well, including a 12-tackle performance vs. Dallas in Week 10. Wilson (6-1, 230), a former Minnesota Vikings starter, was a midseason signing off New Orleans' practice squad and tied for the team lead in special-teams tackles despite not joining Green Bay until Week 5.

Inside linebacker also has three new additions, beginning with 2022 seventh-round draft pick Tariq Carpenter, who is converting from safety. Another special-teams regular, Carpenter (6-3, 230) was viewed as a hybrid player coming out of Georgia Tech and was fully invested in the position switch this spring.

The other newcomers are undrafted rookies Keshawn Banks and Jimmy Phillips Jr. Banks (6-3, 251) played five seasons at San Diego State and had at least 11 tackles for loss and at least three sacks in three of them. Phillips (6-1, 232) played five seasons at SMU and led the team with a career-high 85 tackles last year.

Countdown to Camp series

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