INDIANAPOLIS – As the Packers undoubtedly look to fortify their pass rush in the upcoming draft, one young, returning player could start making a name for himself in that area based on how he finished 2017.
Outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert, an undrafted prospect from 2016 who spent his entire rookie year and all but the final two weeks of last season on Green Bay's practice squad, was a player General Manager Brian Gutekunst and Head Coach Mike McCarthy both mentioned in their media sessions at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Make no mistake, Gilbert's potential emergence is not seen as the equivalent of a high draft pick or key free-agent signing to boost the pass rush this offseason, but it sounds as though he's going to be given a chance to find a role in new coordinator Mike Pettine's defense.
"He played well when he came up," McCarthy said, referring to Gilbert's elevation from the practice squad to the active roster for the final two games last season. "He was prepared. He was competing."
Against the Vikings and Lions to finish out the year, Gilbert showed he can get after the quarterback. He had four pressures and three QB hits on Minnesota's Case Keenum in Week 16 and then broke through for a sack of Detroit's Matthew Stafford in the finale. He also showed his overall athleticism in chasing down Lions receiver Golden Tate on a screen pass for a tackle at the line of scrimmage.
McCarthy mentioned that the discussion of bringing Gilbert up from the practice squad had started weeks earlier, but a number of unspecified factors led to the delay of the roster move.
Gilbert was "kicking (butt)" in practice, McCarthy said, and the coaches had started giving him 11-on-11 reps with the defensive regulars, something the Packers do on occasion with practice-squad players to test their readiness.
"They need to know what that feels like," McCarthy said. "There's nothing worse than being a practice-squad guy who's doing really well but is reading (scout team) cards the whole time.
"We've always thrown those guys in. We're always working that angle."
Gilbert had done his part, focusing on his strength and conditioning throughout his rookie and second years to make the transition from a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end in the Pac-12 at Arizona to a stand-up outside linebacker for Green Bay.
The 6-3, 260-pounder had even rushed the passer from the defensive tackle spot at times in college, so he had to reshape himself to play the game a different way.
"His progression, you wish every rookie could see what he did, how to change his body and become a pro," Gutekunst said. "That was impressive to see."
Where it goes from here will depend in part on Pettine's vision for Gilbert and the defense as a whole. But it'll also be up to Gilbert, who knows someone else will always come along trying to earn an opportunity the same way he did.
That's the nature of life in the NFL, and a new GM in Green Bay won't be changing that part of the culture.
"Do I think it's healthy that players look over their shoulder and are worried about a guy taking their spot? Sure," Gutekunst said. "No matter what level of sport you're in, that's a healthy driver for some guys. You would love them all to be so self-motivated that it didn't matter, but that's just not the case."