Packers' defense has fortified its edges in training camp

Depth at outside linebacker a major boost heading into new season


GREEN BAY – Compared to how 2022 ended, the Packers are in a much different, and much better, place at outside linebacker as 2023 begins.

Rewind to the home stretch last season, and the Packers were piecing together as best they could an edge rusher group missing Rashan Gary.

Behind stalwart and leader Preston Smith, then-rookie Kingsley Enagbare was learning on the fly, veteran signee Justin Hollins was re-acclimating himself to Joe Barry's defensive system as quickly as possible, and Jonathan Garvin was filling in with minimal production.

There were meaningful contributions, as Enagbare recorded a sack and four QB hits after Gary's ACL injury, and Hollins – who had previously played for Barry with the Rams – produced 2½ sacks in a five-game span. Smith also cranked up his game, getting five of his 8½ sacks on the season with Gary out of the lineup.

But on balance, the defense was in a tough spot, surviving so thin at such a premium position.

Fast forward to the final days of training camp and the contrast in depth is stark.

While Smith is as steady and reliable as ever, Gary has returned from his ACL rehab to take 11-on-11 snaps for the first time this year, Enagbare just posted a two-sack preseason outing, Hollins is much more settled in, and a first-round draft pick in Lukas Van Ness has been added to the crew.

On top of all that, undrafted rookie Brenton Cox Jr. showed enough promise that Garvin was released early in camp and the undrafted rookie from Florida just might land a surprise roster spot.

"We've got a lot of potential, but we've got to utilize that potential and put it to good use," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "I like the approach of the group. The competition has really elevated, I think, the play of some of those younger players."

Enagbare is one who jumps out. A fifth-round draft pick last year from South Carolina, he finished his rookie season with three sacks but was just figuring out the pro game.

Last week in the two joint practices with the Patriots, his progress in Year 2 became very evident, as he spent his share of time in New England's backfield. So much in fact that LaFleur told him before last Saturday's preseason game he'd get a couple of sacks, and sure enough he did.

The second sack was a high-impact play, as he stripped Patriots QB Mac Jones from behind and then recovered the fumble himself, setting up a Packers scoring drive. The teammate known as "JJ" for his childhood affinity for the TV show "Jay Jay the Jet Plane" showed he's taken the major step forward everyone hoped he would.

"JJ, from Day 1 when he walked in to JJ now, is completely different," Gary said. "His confidence, his understanding of schemes, his understanding of the offensive linemen sets, how they want to block him and what he wants the offensive linemen to do, is completely next level compared to where he came in.

"I'm just happy for his progression and his growth."

The Packers are still waiting for that preseason splash from Van Ness, but they're willing to be patient, knowing the similar path Gary took as a first-round pick four years ago.

Switching from a three-point to two-point stance takes time, as does learning an NFL playbook. In addition, it's been on the team's radar since selecting Van Ness out of Iowa with the No. 13 overall pick that he could be used as an interior rusher in some sub-packages, so he's done individual drills on occasion with the defensive linemen in training camp.

That's a lot for a 22-year-old with just two seasons of college ball to absorb, but Van Ness insists he isn't overwhelmed and is just focused on the right daily mentality knowing the plays "will come to me."

"Every day our coaches like to say 'the playbook's pregnant.' It's always growing," he said, referring to a regular phrase from position coach Jason Rebrovich. "There's something new every day whether it's a different look, a new formation, but I feel a lot more comfortable and I'm excited to see how that plays out."

Cox is another intriguing prospect who likely would've been drafted if not for off-the-field issues in college that led him to being dismissed from two Southeastern Conference programs.

By all accounts he's taken advantage of the fresh start the Packers have given him, and he made his presence felt in the preseason opener at Cincinnati, deflecting a pass at the line of scrimmage that a teammate intercepted.

Granted, nothing from practices or preseason games will matter in 2½ weeks when everything counts for real, and fingers are crossed that Gary can be ready for Week 1, at least in a part-time capacity.

But overall, the depth chart at outside linebacker looks a lot more appealing now than nine months ago, and Barry's defense should soon reap the benefits.

"We have a great room of guys," Van Ness said. "We have great energy, we attack the day. I think we're physical, I think we get after the quarterback, and I'm excited to see what we do this year."


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