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Lukas Van Ness' strong finish was 'just the starting point'

Packers’ rookie first-round pick thrived after a few midseason adjustments

LB Lukas Van Ness
LB Lukas Van Ness

GREEN BAY – Lukas Van Ness understood what he was signing up for when he declared as a redshirt sophomore for the NFL Draft last winter.

Only 21 years old when the Packers selected him with the No. 13 pick, Van Ness would need to learn on the fly as a rookie. To add an extra layer of difficulty to that challenge, the former Iowa interior defensive lineman also was making a transition in Green Bay to an outside linebacker rushing from a two-point stance.

The athleticism was impossible to miss and clear when Van Ness chased down Chicago quarterback Justin Fields for his first career sack in his first NFL game, but putting the rest of the pieces together took more time.

With a few midseason tweaks, however, the 6-foot-5, 272-pound linebacker found his best form during the Packers' playoff chase. After Thanksgiving, Van Ness racked up 18 tackles, seven quarterback hits and four sacks in his final eight games (including playoffs).

"I think it just shows what the rookie season is," said Van Ness prior to last month's NFC Divisional playoff game in San Francisco. "Coming from Iowa and playing interior D-line and a lot of different techniques, to come into Green Bay and change up my technique and learning a different defense, I had a lot of hurdles to get over. I felt like, especially the last month or two, I've been able to put together and play a lot more free."

Van Ness kept his composure during a long rookie campaign, especially during the two-month gap between his play against Fields and his sack of Patrick Mahomes in Green Bay's 27-19 triumph over the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

The game slowed down as Van Ness pressed on, but he and position coach Jason Rebrovich also made a small adjustment that allowed the former Iowa defensive lineman to put his hand back in the dirt more during the second half of the year.

Van Ness said he and Rebrovich always had that option, but the rookie wanted to first get comfortable in the defense and develop his vision in a two-point stance. Once Van Ness settled in, he unleashed a unique bag of pass-rushing tricks.

"Football IQ, knowledge of the game, having an understanding of the pre-snap process and expecting what I'm going to get every single play," Van Ness said. "I think the past half year, I've gotten down to that three-point (and) feel a lot more comfortable with my get-off and pass rush."

Another key figure in Van Ness' development was Packers' star outside linebacker Rashan Gary, who came to Green Bay under similar circumstances as the 12th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

The 6-foot-5, 277-pound linebacker played half his rookie season at just 21 years old, rotating behind free-agent acquisitions, Preston and Za'Darius Smith. The two veterans combined for 25½ sacks out of the gate, while Gary finished with three QB hits and two sacks in 16 appearances.

Within two seasons, however, Gary became the Packers' sack leader, and this past fall, earned a contract extension to remain in Green Bay in the long term.

"I was hard on myself just not producing and getting it as fast as I wanted to, (but) I got R.G., who went through it before and was able to talk through that and explain that there's a learning curve to it," Van Ness said. "He's been a great mentor, obviously great lockermate right here next to me. He's really helped me get through that process to develop my mind and really take a lot of that pressure."

Asked about Van Ness after the season, Gary had an ear-to-ear grin on his face while praising the rookie for his humility, stringent work ethic and steady approach to handling the bright lights accompanying a first-round pick with massive expectations.

On the field, what stood out the most to Gary about Van Ness' second half was his confidence and desire to decipher what offenses were doing on every play, which Gary believes makes his pupil a prime breakout candidate in 2024.

"He's not even scratching the surface, man. He's just starting," Gary said. "The player he was coming in, from rookie minicamp to the guy he's leaving now to have an offseason to work on his game, is completely different.

"I know it's going to be a big jump next year because he has the same type of work ethic as me and he's hungry for everything he has in front of him … He understands what he needs to work on, and I know he's going to get better at it. I just can't wait to see him tear it up next year."

The Packers' defense is embarking on a major change this upcoming season, with former Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley taking over as coordinator. While much isn't known about the scheme Hafley plans to run, he has a major piece to build around in Van Ness.

"This is just the starting point," Van Ness said. "It's hard to put into words. Not even as a player, as a person, I've matured so much; really grown up. I'm light years ahead of where I was a year ago."

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