Rashan Gary pushing for high impact in Packers' defense

Elgton Jenkins another early 2019 draft pick with bright future heading into Year 2

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LB Rashan Gary

GREEN BAY – Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's comments in the offseason about having high expectations for Rashan Gary weren't just throwaway lines.

Through the first two practices of training camp, Gary has taken a large share of snaps with the Packers' No. 1 defense, working right alongside the two pass rushers he sat behind and learned from as a rookie last year, Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith.

Seeing all three on the field together is somewhat eye-opening, as is the leaner, stronger body Gary has brought into his second year after the vigorous, nonstop offseason he chronicled on social media.

"You can never question how Rashan goes after it and his work ethic," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "He came back in phenomenal shape."

Gary returned for 2020 a few pounds heavier than last year, at 276, but noticeably more defined. The intensity and excitement of the Packers' 2019 first-round pick, who's just 22 years old, are impossible to miss.

"That's not even a question," Gary said when asked how hungry he is in Year 2. "Everything I did in the offseason to this point is about being the best me, coming back and being an impact player. You know that's what I want to be and that's what I will be. So that's just been my whole mindset and I'm just down and grinding."

What exactly Pettine's plans are for his top three outside linebackers, and deploying all of them at the same time, will unfold in time. But it's obvious Gary will be playing a lot more than his roughly 240 defensive snaps from a year ago, and he went about the offseason, pandemic and all, determined to be physically ready.

Working out at McKinney High School in Texas, Gary ran bleachers and gassers. He watched his diet more, and he worked on technique and footwork drills with a former position coach.

With his current coach, Mike Smith, whom he praises, Gary dove into the virtual meetings to learn Pettine's system that much better, particularly the smaller details. His two sacks and 19 QB pressures provided impact in limited playing time as a rookie, but he knows any strides he makes mentally will be just as important as those he makes physically to succeed with a larger role.

"In terms of the scheme, the plays and how I fit into it, I feel great," he said. "I feel like I'm at the point where it's just perfecting every play. It's not like learning it and getting it down. I know it and now it's about making it effective and doing my assignment every play."

As for the Smiths, he calls them his "big brothers." They've both expressed confidence in what Gary can bring to the defense and seem to have enjoyed showing him the ropes, while Gary has been able to see first-hand what Pro Bowl-caliber play at his position looks like week after week.

The Green Bay Packers held their second training-camp practice of 2020 at Ray Nitschke Field on Aug. 17.

"My mindset is to be great," said Gary, whom the Packers drafted out of Michigan with the No. 12 overall pick last year. "I've got a lot of examples in front of me last year watching 'P,' watching 'Z' and I know what it takes.

"My body is right, mind right, and just ready to go."

Another high draft pick from a year ago, left guard Elgton Jenkins, is feeling the same way.

A second-round choice out of Mississippi State, Jenkins stepped in as a starter in Week 3 when Lane Taylor got hurt and never looked back, earning PFWA All-Rookie honors.

He has a lot more NFL experience under his belt than Gary, but he's looking at Year 2 similarly in terms of focusing on some of the finer points with the basics of the playbook engrained now.

"I'm just out there trying to freshen up on technique instead of worrying about plays and assignments," Jenkins said.

He credits playing between accomplished pros like left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley for making his transition last year – he played mostly center in college – relatively seamless. Now he's an entrenched starter on the left side while a competition on the right side plays out.

Even though he came off the bench at the beginning of his rookie season, Jenkins spurred conversation amongst the coaches about what they had very early on, and now the only question about him seems to be where his ceiling might be.

The Packers have had three Pro Bowl guards over the last two decades – Marco Rivera, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang – after not having any through the 1980s and '90s. Perhaps Jenkins is next.

"Toward the end of the preseason, we were pretty excited about him and he certainly didn't disappoint," LaFleur said. "I felt like he was a guy that when he got his opportunity he made the most of it and he got better and better and better.

"Like most rookies, that season's extremely long and it gets tough, but I love Elgton, I love what he's all about. He fits in great with that offensive line room and just really excited about where his future could go."

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