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Pre-draft picture: Depth has critical part to play in Packers' edge rush

While Rashan Gary rehabs, Preston Smith remains the key ingredient to defensive formula

LB Preston Smith
LB Preston Smith

"Pre-draft picture" is a position-by-position look at the Packers' roster heading into the 2023 NFL Draft. The series continues with the linebackers.

GREEN BAY – When healthy, Rashan Gary and Preston Smith have formed one of the NFL's top edge-rushing tandems.

Since Gary became a starter in 2021, the two Packers linebackers have combined for 176 tackles, 77 quarterback hits, 33 sacks and seven forced fumbles. Gary and Smith only appeared to be scratching the surface of their collective potential when Green Bay traveled to Detroit last November for a Week 9 showdown with the Lions.

Unfortunately, that's where Gary's breakout season would end after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament at Ford Field. While all signs point towards Gary making a full recovery, the Packers' pass rush has had to press on without the former first-round pick.

That process will continue into 2023, as Green Bay looks to stem the tide until Gary's return to the field. Opportunity was born out of Gary's misfortune, with rookie fifth-round pick Kingsley Enagbare and veteran Justin Hollins stepping up alongside Smith down the stretch.

Enagbare played in all 17 games with seven starts, recording 31 tackles, eight QB hits and three sacks – the most sacks by a Packers rookie in a nearly a decade.

The Packers claimed Hollins off waivers from the Los Angeles Rams shortly after Gary's injury. The move reunited the fourth-year linebacker with Joe Barry, who previously served as LA's assistant head coach and linebackers coach before being hired as Green Bay's defensive coordinator in 2021.

Hollins proved to be a quick study. The 6-foot-5, 248-pound linebacker registered nine tackles and 2½ sacks in six appearances with the Packers. Hollins re-signed with Green Bay last month.

The key ingredient to the Packers' edge rush remains Smith, who has racked up 195 tackles, 71 QB hits and 33½ sacks over 65 games (62 starts) in Green Bay. The 31-year-old veteran has missed just one game in eight NFL seasons.

Smith took his game to another level after Gary's injury, too. Over the final eight games of the 2023 season, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound linebacker tallied 30 tackles, 11 QB hits, five sacks and a forced fumble.

Rounding out the room is fourth-year linebacker Jonathan Garvin and practice-squad holdover La'Darius Hamilton, who'll compete for jobs with the incoming rookie class.

In the meantime, the Packers patiently wait for Gary's return. The 25-year-old linebacker was off to a strong start in 2022, generating 32 tackles, 12 QB hits and six sacks in nine games. According to TruMedia, Gary ranked in the top 10 among NFL linebackers in QB hits (tied for sixth), sacks (eighth) and pressures (27, ninth) through the first nine weeks of the 2023 campaign.

The Packers have far fewer questions at inside linebacker, where All-Pro De'Vondre Campbell and 2021 first-round pick Quay Walker reconvene for their second season together.

A midseason knee injury sidelined Campbell for four games last year, but the eighth-year veteran still finished with 96 tackles (six for loss) and two interceptions, including a 63-yard return for a touchdown against Washington in Week 7. Still only 29, Campbell has served as the primary communicator on defense the past two seasons.

At 6-foot-4, 241 pounds, Walker has a comparable stature and playstyle as Campbell. The idea of playing the two together enticed Green Bay to draft Walker 22nd overall last April, making the former Georgia standout the first Packers inside linebacker to be drafted in the first round since A.J. Hawk in 2006.

Walker earned a spot on the PFWA's All-Rookie Team after leading Green Bay's defense with 119 tackles and three forced fumbles, which tied for sixth most in the NFL.

Behind Campbell and Walker, the Packers return veteran Eric Wilson and 2021 sixth-round pick Isaiah McDuffie, who also are mainstays on Rich Bisaccia's special-teams unit. The two linebackers tied for the team lead with 13 coverage tackles last season.

Defensively, Wilson and McDuffie provide plenty of depth, as well. Wilson, who re-signed with Green Bay earlier this month, has 297 tackles and four interceptions in 91 career games (27 starts), while McDuffie registered 30 tackles and a fumble recovery on 174 defensive snaps last season.

Their collective experience made the Packers feel comfortable enough to not tender a restricted free-agent contract to Krys Barnes, who recorded 161 tackles over 28 games (23 starts) in his first two seasons with Green Bay. Barnes signed with Arizona on March 26.

The Packers could use more bodies, though. Campbell, Walker, Wilson, and McDuffie are the only four inside linebackers currently on the offseason roster.

Pre-Draft Roster Series:

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