GREEN BAY – The short version of Reggie Gilbert’s story, thus far, goes something like this.
Undrafted as a defensive lineman out of Arizona in 2016, he signed with the Packers, switched positions to outside linebacker, dropped 20 pounds over the last two years, spent 30 regular-season games on the practice squad, and then got a handful of quarterback pressures and hits, including a sack, in his first two games of NFL action to conclude 2017.
OK, so it’s tough for even the short version to be short, but it’s a reflection of a long and winding path that has required equal parts diligence and patience from Gilbert, who is now in a spot that seemed unthinkable two years ago – he might be one of the first edge rushers to rotate in for starters Clay Matthews and Nick Perry in 2018.
“I’m still not to the point where I need to be, and it’s a process,” Gilbert said last weekend after participating in a rare third consecutive rookie orientation – for which he was eligible because his two games on the active roster last year fell below the service-time minimum.
“It’s a work in progress every day.”
Gilbert’s progress has come on multiple fronts, first and foremost with the position he plays. He considered himself a four-technique lineman in college, meaning he lined up most often between the offensive guard and tackle, taking on double teams.
Now he’s a full-fledged outside ’backer who’s dropping into coverage so fluidly that Head Coach Mike McCarthy cracked a joked last weekend he might try him out at tight end.
“Coming here and just learning how to play on the edge on a consistent basis, that was different, and also transferring from a three-point (stance) to a two-point, and the coverage aspects, my head was pretty much spinning,” Gilbert said. “It’s been a transition, but I think I’m starting to get it.”
He needed to shed weight and lean up his muscle mass along the way, easier said than done for a West Coaster admittedly fond of In-N-Out Burger. But he’s gone from the high 270s coming out of college to the high 250s this spring.
The overall transformation elicited praise at the scouting combine from both McCarthy and General Manager Brian Gutekunst, but the entire process has been a test of Gilbert’s will.
A 47-game starter in college, Gilbert was two weeks away from spending an entire second season on the practice squad when he finally was promoted to the active roster last December with Matthews and Perry both sidelined.
“It was definitely a grind,” he said. “I’m not going to lie and say it wasn’t hard, because it was definitely difficult for me. But I just tried to take a positive approach to it, tried to get better every day, and I think that paid off.”
Once on the field, Gilbert said he felt “hungry” and “like the chains were broken.” Against Minnesota in Week 16, he spent most of the game harassing Vikings QB Case Keenum in the backfield. In the finale at Detroit, he took down Matthew Stafford for his first career sack.
The humble Gilbert by no means believes he’s arrived, and he’s quick to mention the help of position coach Winston Moss, the tutelage of Matthews and Perry, and the practice competition against offensive tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga as significant factors in his growth.
Packers rookies did on-field work inside the Don Hutson Center on Friday. Photos by Evan Siegle, packers.com.
He’s also perfectly aware of the opportunity that remains in front of him. The Packers’ decision not to draft an edge rusher until their 11th and final selection two weeks ago can be interpreted, at least in part, as a vote of confidence for Gilbert and what he can offer.
Like he’s done all along, though, Gilbert is taking it one step at a time, particularly while learning defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s new scheme.
As much as the depth chart shows the Packers will likely be counting on Gilbert to pick up where he left off at the end of last season, he’s just focused right now on making the 53-man roster after getting bad news at the end of his first two training camps.
“I couldn’t really tell you exactly what it’s going to take, because if I knew, that would be good for me,” he said.
“This definitely seems like a fun defense to play in. It sounds like we’re going to be getting after the quarterback a lot, so I’m looking forward to it.”