Some fans and draft pundits were confused when the Green Bay Packers selected Rashan Gary with the 12th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
After all, they had just signed Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith in free agency. They also had a solid rotational piece in Kyler Fackrell. Beyond that, Gary was ranked all over the big board for NFL analysts, as high as 10 and as low as 48. Most of them had him after Carolina Panthers edge Brian Burns, who wasn’t selected until later in the first round.
But after two years in the NFL, Gary is rising, and it may be time for him to be a starter over Smith, the incumbent.
After Smith had a career year in 2019, putting up 12 sacks and 62 pressures, he was expected to regress a bit. But not many expected to see his production completely fall off a cliff. Smith struggled mightily last year. He only had four sacks, and he had around half as many pressures, totaling just 29. Smith also struggled against the run, losing contain frequently and posting a run defense grade of 53.0.
Meanwhile, Gary’s production increased each week. While he only played in 44% of the snaps, Gary tallied nine sacks and 46 pressures. He saw his pressure rate increase by over 3.0 percent, from 10.5% in 2019 to 13.8% last year.
Gary came into his own in the last few games of the year. From Week 16 to the Conference Championship, he was the highest-graded edge rusher in the entire NFL at 91.5, per PFF.
Even before the breakout that he had to end the season, Gary was outproducing Smith. In the first 15 weeks of the season, Gary had seven sacks to Smith’s five. He had 32 pressures to Smith’s 24.
Beyond the basic numbers, Gary had a pass-rushing productivity — defined as the amount of pressure accumulated per pass-rushing snap, like pass-blocking efficiency for an offensive lineman — of 7.6 to Smith’s 4.4.
The gap between them only grew as Gary got better and Smith got worse. From Week 16 to the end of the Packers’ season, Smith’s pass-rushing productivity fell to 2.7, which ranked 104th among 123 edges in the league. Gary’s increased to 10.1, which ranked as fifth among 123 edges in the league and almost doubled that of Za’Darius Smith, who had a 5.9.
Most importantly, Gary had some of his best games against some of the better right tackles in the NFL, racking up three pressures against Brian O’Neill of the Minnesota Vikings and five pressures against Dennis Kelly in the Tennessee Titans game.
It is important to note that the Packers hired Joe Barry to be their new defensive coordinator this offseason, and Barry has previously coached Smith in Washington, where he aided his development. A coach known to get some of the best out of Smith could help add to the Packers pass rush in general. However, there will be a legitimate camp battle for that second OLB spot — and if Gary keeps up this progression, he should win.
Gary finished the season as the Packers’ best edge. They quietly have a rising star, and it is finally time to let the former first-rounder loose.