Hello Packer Nation!
We are midway through the 2019 preseason and while it is difficult to gauge how this team or players will perform this year, there is one player I have had a keen eye on since draft night. I did a Facebook live when Rashan Gary was drafted @ #12 and had legitimate concerns just like any average or advanced football person. While I will never question his athletic ability (the guy ran the fastest 40 time in NFL combine history for a player over 270 lb @ 4.58 and jumped 38") I have to question whether Packer brass are doing the young man any favors starting him out at OLB? I will explain why.
Here are a few excerpts from his draft profile on NFL.com and The Draft Network. I cherry picked the most important evaluations;
"Gary has loads of potential but a lack of development in key areas. He is a face-up rusher who seems content to hit tackles with bull-rush attempts rather than working the edges. He has elite potential if a defensive coordinator can harness the energy and focus his approach."
Let's start with the first critique that he is a "face-up rusher." If you listen to any football coach explain traits of a good pass rusher, the majority of them will mention "having a plan" is one of the most important traits. If you are an edge rusher, you have to read the OT (offensive tackle) on and incorporate a rush plan on the fly. In a 3-4 defense like the Packers play, the "edge" rusher or OLB line up outside the tackles farthest shoulder from the ball in most circumstances. What this allows the edge rusher to do is examine the OT's blocking technique and possibly provides cues to the play call. If the tackle isn't moving outside his box, it is likely a designed pass play. If the tackle explodes out of his stance at the snap, the offense is likely in run mode. Second, if it's a run play his responsibility is to hold the edge so a RB can't bounce outside him and get around the edge. His job is to make sure the running back runs in between the offensive tackles. Third, if it is a pass play, you need quick thinking to diagnose a rush plan to either beat him inside, outside or through the OT. Does the OT have help from a guard or chip block from a tight end? If the QB escapes the pocket the edge rusher maintains outside control so the QB's only option is running into the teeth of the defensive line. There is a lot to think about and it is likely the most advanced position in a 3-4 because their job isn't just to rush the passer "face-up." He holds the edge so all ball carriers have to run into the strength of the defense - which is between the tackles.
The Packers have only played two preseason games and I find it hard to judge after such a small sampling. But, it is painfully obvious that Gary's best rush potential is not at OLB this season. His short area quickness and strength are very good and best utilized inside where contact is abrupt and guards are easier to beat with speed in short space. A good edge rusher also bends his body in ways to get around and under long arms of tackles. Watch Von Miller and how every rush is from a different level, a different angle and with expert hand placement. He can beat you by dipping outside, countering inside or bull rushing when he notices a tackles feet aren't set. Right now, Gary only plays one speed with no technique or control. On a screen play against Baltimore, he was slow to react after misreading the play. He was out of position to make a play on the ball. If he would have read the guards pulling and the RB settling under them he should have picked up on the read and noticed it was a screen and held the block. Instead, he took himself out of the play and put the defense in a precarious position taking on pulling OL. That is not an easy task for a small defense like the Packers. Because they like to play with an extra safety or DB, it leaves them in position to take on a pulling OL and the odds aren't in their favor. Abandon containment and you put the whole defense at risk. While you can say he is only a rookie and he will grow, there are tell tale signs that his football bandwidth is very limited.
A few more excerpts from Gary's draft profile;
"Hands lack skill, lacks classic hip bend to dip and run under blocks. Lacks instincts and awareness for misdirections and counters. Rush plan is basic at this stage of development."
If those skills are raw, why would the Packers put him at OLB where those traits need to be above average? This league has trended towards offenses who utilize misdirections on the regular. It...just...does...not...make...sense!
"Explosive first step is his best weapon as a pass rusher. Speed to power is his go-to move."
While this is a desirable trait for any edge rusher, speed doesn't win on the majority of plays. Most NFL tackles have quick enough feet to consistently counter speed. It is rare when an edge rusher beats a tackle around the edge without being touched. Aaron Donald wins inside with comparable traits and is the league's best interior DL because he gets off the ball extremely quick and is powerful enough to run through scrapes/stunts by interior offensive lineman. His athletic prowess if very similar to Gary's coming out of college. He had 20.5 sacks in 2018 and 59.5 sacks in his five seasons. Take note Packers!
"Needs to improve his processing in unblocked situations, will often fly up field and leave gaping holes where is should have stepped down. Needs better ball awareness."
I mentioned this above when referencing the screen play Gary misplayed against Baltimore. It also happened against the Texans when mobile QB Joe Webb vacated the pocket and Gary allowed Webb to step around him and run for a first down. Gary needs to learn the play is NEVER over even when the initial ball carrier isn't on his radar.
Let's roll back to the 2012 Wild Card loss against San Francisco. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick tore up the Packers defense with RPO (run pass option). A lot of responsibility was placed on Packer edge rushers (Clay Matthews and Erik Walden) not holding blocks , losing containment that allowed Kaepernick huge holes to run through inside and outside the tackle. He ended up rushing for 181 yards in that game and it still holds the NFL record for most rushing yards by QB in a game. The OLB play that game was deplorable and Gary would not have performed well in similar circumstances. In fact it could have been much worse.
"Struggles with lateral mobility, specifically when trying to turn the corner as a pass rusher. Does not possess the needed tilt to carry speed through the corners if contacted."
If anyone watched game film from his junior year at Michigan, Gary lined up outside the tackle a lot after a shoulder injury. His production wasn't nearly as good as previous seasons playing inside. Many scouts rated Gary as a better prospect inside but his off the charts athletic testing numbers were going to intrigue teams to push him outside like the Packers. Many thought he played out of position at Michigan and I believe the Packers are continuing the trend. While I have not written him off playing edge he needs seasoning, a ton of technique work and watching game film to understand tendencies.
Gary is the epitome of clay sitting on a molding plate. If not worked on he will just be a bowl of clay. With coaching, instruction, repetitive technique work and proper position placement Gary can be a fine NFL player. If he continues down the path the Packers have in place, he will be nothing more than a situational player. After investing a #12 pick in this years draft on Gary, that isn't a justifiable return on the investment. Please move him inside to play 1 or 3 technique. Example below details what that means.
3 1 1 3
T G C G T (offensive line position chart)
We can only hope this is a Kenny Clark transformation, not Nick Perry. Throwing him to the wolves will have detrimental effects on his development. While athletically gifted, the NFL game is much more than athletes running around. He will not succeed on that alone. Mark my word!
Go Pack Go!