Skip to main content

Pass-rushing possibilities endless with returning Smith Bros., Rashan Gary

Undrafted free agent Krys Barnes has become the unexpected voice of the Packers’ defense

Linebackers Za'Darius Smith, Rashan Gary and Preston Smith
Linebackers Za'Darius Smith, Rashan Gary and Preston Smith is taking a look at the Packers' roster, position by position, leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft. The series continues with the linebackers.

GREEN BAY – The Packers have youth and depth on their side at both linebacker positions after losing just a single player, veteran Christian Kirksey, this offseason.

Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and ascending edge rusher Rashan Gary, are all back after combining for 261 tackles, 48 sacks, six forced fumbles and 108 quarterback hits the past two seasons.

Infamously "snubbed" in 2019, Za'Darius Smith left no doubts last season when he made All-Pro for the first time, garnering second-team recognition after posting 12½ sacks with four forced fumbles.

Smith's 26 sacks with Green Bay are the most by a Packers player in his first two seasons with the team and are third most in the NFL since 2019.

And he's lined up pretty much everywhere to do it, whether it's as a traditional outside rusher, a roving linebacker behind the line of scrimmage or a three-technique defensive lineman with his hand in the dirt.

Green Bay was able to get more creative with Za'Darius' deployment thanks in part to the maturation of Gary, which, in turn, created more opportunities for the former first-round pick.

Still only 23, Gary enjoyed a 53% spike in playing time and parlayed it into setting career highs across the board. He registered 35 tackles, 11 QB hits and five sacks in 15 regular-season games before adding another 1½ sacks in the Packers' divisional playoff win over the Los Angeles Rams.

Preston Smith is looking to bounce back after reuniting with former defensive coordinator, Joe Barry, who had a hand in helping develop Smith as a rookie in Washington back in 2016.

Although Preston's sack numbers declined this past season, both Barry and General Manager Brian Gutekunst have expressed confidence in the 28-year-old pass rusher, who posted a career-high 12½ sacks in his first season with the Packers in 2019.

The Packers used a short rotation at outside linebacker during their charge to the NFC Championship Game, with the Smith Bros. and Gary combining for more than 2,100 snaps last year.

The rest of the workload fell to seventh-round pick Jonathan Garvin, Randy Ramsey and Oren Burks, who shifted in-season from inside linebacker. Undrafted free agent Tipa Galeai was active for the regular-season opener but spent the rest of his rookie campaign on the practice squad.

Take a look at the top prospects at linebacker heading into the 2021 NFL Draft.

While the Packers wouldn't appear to have much of a need at outside linebacker, it's possible the Smiths and Gary could be on the field together more if Barry's time as a linebackers coach in Los Angeles is any indication.

The Rams, perhaps more than any other NFL team, used a barrage of five-man fronts on their way to leading the NFL in total defense in 2020.

Despite all the uncertainty surrounding last year's NFL Draft due to the rise of COVID-19, the Packers managed to uncover an undrafted gem in former UCLA Bruin Krys Barnes.

Starting the opener at Minnesota after a very brief stay on the practice squad, Barnes came out of nowhere to become the Packers' every-down inside linebacker and finish second on the defense with 80 tackles.

The Packers initially signed Kirksey last March to replace Blake Martinez as the "Mike" linebacker responsible for signaling the defense, but Barnes' savviness and strong communication skills won out. He capped his rookie regular season with a career-high 14 tackles in the Packers' 35-16 win over Chicago in Week 17.

Kirksey finished the year as the "Will" linebacker in nickel, while rookie fifth-round pick Kamal Martin played next to Barnes in the base defense.

Martin was on the verge of claiming a starting role last year in training camp before knee surgery sidelined him for the first five games of the season. The 22-year-old linebacker recorded 17 tackles and a sack in 10 regular-season games (six starts).

Third-year veteran Ty Summers, a special-teams mainstay, served as the understudy to Barnes at "Mike" linebacker last season and will look to carve out a more defined role in 2021, while practice-squad holdover De'Jon Harris and Ray Wilborn round out the inside linebacker room.

The Packers haven't been shy about using draft capital on inside linebackers, having picked five over the past five years. However, Burks' 88th-overall selection in 2018 remains the highest draft choice Green Bay has used on the position since taking A.J. Hawk fifth overall in 2006.

Take a look at the top prospects at edge heading into the 2021 NFL Draft.

Position-by-position series

Related Content