Depth at Edge Rusher Still a Concern for the Packers

The Green Bay Packers defense has looked strong thus far in training camp. The defense has been ahead of the offense thus far and there has been a buzz about the defense's potential since the team added Georgia alums Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt in the first round, added free agent defensive lineman Jarran Reed and re-signed inside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and cornerback Rasul Douglas this offseason. On paper, this could be the best defense the team has fielded in a long time and it could feature seven former first-round draft picks in the starting lineup.

While there is optimism surrounding Joe Barry's group, there are still some questions remaining and the biggest may be at edge rusher. The Packers feature two proven starters in Preston Smith and Rashan Gary. They ranked first and second on the team in sacks last season with Gary leading the team with 9.5 while Smith was close behind with nine. But the Packers had to release Za'Darius Smith for cap reasons this past offseason and Whitney Mercilus retired. That leaves a lot of questions when it comes to depth at the edge rusher position.

Depth on the edge is critical for a defense. The third and fourth edge rushers on most teams will see action on a rotational basis. Last season, for example, Gary played 68 percent of the team's defensive snaps. Preston Smith was also on the field for the same percentage of defensive snaps in 2021 although his numbers were higher in his first two seasons with the Packers (84 percent in 2019 and 79 percent in 2020). 

The Packers defense played its best football last year when Mercilus was healthy and on the field. The Packers only allowed 44 points in the four games Mercilus played including holding Patrick Mahomes and the explosive Chiefs offense to 13 points in Kansas City and a shutout of Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks. In the Packers playoff game against the 49ers, the Packers had Za'Darius Smith and Mercilus back in the lineup and the Packers did not allow a defensive touchdown.

In training camp, there has been an open competition for the backup edge rusher jobs and it remains unclear who will fill the void. Last season, Jonathan Garvin and Tipa Galeai got most of the work but neither of them showed any kind of consistency rushing the quarterback. Garvin had 1.5 sacks and 11 pressures according to pro-football-reference.com while Galeai had one sack and three pressures. Both Garvin and Galeai are back with the team this preseason but neither has stood out thus far in training camp.

The player who may be making the biggest impression on the Packers coaching staff thus far is La'Darius Hamilton. He played six games for the Packers last season and had three pressures. In training camp thus far, Hamilton has been doing the best job of getting some pressure on the quarterback in training camp although many of the practices have been without pads and actually tackling the quarterback is not permitted.

Rookie Kingsley Enagbare has shown some flashes and has a good attitude and study habits, but he may not be ready to join the pass rushing rotation in his first NFL campaign. The fifth-round pick out of South Carolina has been trying to learn as much as possible from Gary who he wants to pattern his game after.

The Packers will need at least two reliable depth edge rushers this season. If either Gary or Smith were to miss significant time due to injuries, the Packers pass rush could take a big hit and the defense's play may fall off significantly. Don't be surprised if the GM Brian Gutekunst looks to sign a veteran edge rusher when cuts are announced before the start of the season if he's not comfortable with the options already on the roster.

The Packers defense has the potential to be one of the better units in the league, but without a consistent pass rush, the defense's level of play could slip significantly. The Packers need a few of the potential backups to step up and provide pressure on the quarterback to have the defense reach its full potential. 

You can follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers

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Comments (13)

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Coldworld's picture

August 06, 2022 at 12:26 pm

Hamilton has surprised me in terms of ability thus far. He’s not just an emergency body held over. Garvin, whether through injury hangover or something else was buried until a week or so ago and has looked perhaps the best since. He has a ton of physical potential untapped. Galeai is a talented rusher who looks great in pads but tends to get washed out in games due to being undersized. He doesn’t look significantly bigger this year.

The problem is that, as La Fleur said (talking of Wyatt last night), the rushers are under strict instructions to slow or veer away if there’s any risk of QB impact. So all we see is if they have a quick step or moves to get through the line and if they can hold an edge.

In reality, OLBs won’t show anything meaningful till they are able to go full out against a QB and face OL who are able to be fully physical too and RBs that are primed to run at them hard. That’s especially true for a guy like Enagbare who’s game is power.

So I do have concerns, though I do see Hamilton as a genuine contender, which I did not before camp and have heard some encouraging views in Kobe Jones. Essentially however, evaluation has not meaningful started for any of these guys and won’t, as LaFleur essentially stated, till they get into preseason games.

Thus I agree it is still a question but it was always likely to be. Is the prognosis any more negative? No. We just haven’t had a meaningful opportunity to get wiser.

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jannes bjornson's picture

August 06, 2022 at 04:55 pm

I like Hamilton. Garvin and Tipa have collected game day reps, so I do not detect any need to panic. If they were concerned, they could have moved on Ingram. Walker brings it from inside and out.

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LLCHESTY's picture

August 06, 2022 at 06:37 pm

There's still guys out there. Dee Ford would be strictly DPR but could be more effective if used on a limited basis like that.

Takkarist McKinley would be a cheap veteran addition. According to PFR he had 14 pressures in 319 snaps. By comparison Garvin had 11 in 395 snaps. McKinley has a 1st round pedigree and is only 26, sometimes the light comes on when those guys have bounced around the league a bit. Sometimes.

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Coldworld's picture

August 07, 2022 at 08:20 am

Ford has a back injury that lingered from last season and prevented him participating in OTAs. That’s bad in an OL, possibly worse for an OLB. He’s purely a pass rusher at this point anyway, as you say. I wouldn’t touch him now. Maybe late season if our rush was anaemic.

McKinley ruptured his ACL in week 15 last year. I don’t see him being an option. He’s also reportedly mused about not returning to football to look after his health (more broadly than the ACL).

At this point, if the current group does not show, there is going to be better out there than there is right now after cut downs. Personally, I think we haven’t had a chance to see what we have yet. You really can’t judge OLBs under modern practice conditions. You need full pads, full contact and permission to at least touch the QB (rather than pull up or beer away in case of accidental contact with body or arm), as LaFleur admitted after family night.

Keep an eye out for Kobe Jones. He’s flashed some ability in limited opportunities. I’m just hoping Garvin starts to show he’s learning to harness his burst, not just his power. If he does, he would be a different player.

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LLCHESTY's picture

August 07, 2022 at 12:37 pm

I think McKinley tore his Achilles. He's young and that injury seems to heal quicker than it used to but if he's wavering about playing that's probably not a good option. Have to see what cutdown day looks like or maybe they get lucky with a mid season release.

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BuckyBadger's picture

August 06, 2022 at 02:29 pm

After the OL, edge is my next worry for the season. I don't think you can count on Preston for 17 games and playoffs again. I am still holding out hope that they will sign someone or that Mercilus is just waiting out training camp. If Gary or Preston go down you everything just got a lot easier to scheme against. Might be relying on Walker to generate a pass rush for few games this year.

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13TimeChamps's picture

August 06, 2022 at 03:06 pm

Preston Smith has played 16 games every year since coming into the league in 2015. Why would you be concerned about his availability this coming year? He's one of the most durable players on the roster, maybe THE most durable.

Any player can get injured and miss time obviously. I just find it odd you would single him out.

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BuckyBadger's picture

August 06, 2022 at 05:46 pm

It is because his age. He will be turning 30 and has some miles on him. He has already beaten the odds, wouldn't be a safe bet for him keep doing it. Sure anyone can get hurt but you DE that is 29 going on 30 is more likely then the one that is 24.

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LLCHESTY's picture

August 06, 2022 at 04:21 pm

I think Garvin can be adequate. He is better against the run than pass right now so I hope they let him give the other guys breathers on early downs. If Galeai can show he can get consistent pressure he can make the team as a DPR and he and Garvin could compliment each other as far as usage.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if the add a veteran at some point. I liked the idea of signing Barr but I think he signed with the Cowboys.

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jannes bjornson's picture

August 06, 2022 at 04:57 pm

Not many left on the street. Picked over pretty cleanly since the end of the draft.

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LLCHESTY's picture

August 06, 2022 at 06:45 pm

There's a few and there might be a vet or two that get released for Salary reasons the Packers might get on the cheap. But Dee Ford is probably only guy that moves the needle right now and he's strictly a DPR at this point. Jamie Collins is old but has a lot of playoff experience and had an 84 grade from PFF last year. He's decent in coverage too.

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PatrickGB's picture

August 07, 2022 at 08:28 am

Wave a bunch of money in the face of Whitney merciless to come out of retirement? Seriously, the guys we have are what we go with. They might not be great but will have to do.

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PackyCheese500's picture

August 07, 2022 at 10:15 pm

You are ABSOLUTELY right when you say the Packers should sign a veteran edge rusher before the season begins. OLB depth is arguably the Packers’ biggest need right now, and we saw how ugly the defense looked when they couldn’t generate consistent pressure on QBs. I think that some combination of Garvin, Hamilton, Tipa, and Enagbare (whoever makes the roster) can probably fill the 4th rotational spot, but there’s still another spot to be accounted for. That is why I think the Packers should sign Jason Pierre-Paul. Here are some reasons why:

1. At this stage of his career, Pierre-Paul isn’t suited to be a full-time starter like he was in Tampa. In Green Bay, he’d be used as a rotational edge rusher, when Smith and/or Gary aren’t on the field. Because he’d only be a rotational player, that would mean a smaller workload and less playing time for him, which would keep him fresher and increase his effectiveness on the field (he could even be more effective in a rotational role than he was as a starter in Tampa at this point in his career).

2. In Tampa, Pierre-Paul would sometimes drop back into coverage like a true OLB. Last year, he was ineffective when in coverage (100% completion rate when targeted), and at this stage in his career, he shouldn’t be utilized this way. Pierre-Paul should be doing what he does best; rushing the passer. Not having him drop into coverage like he did when he was in Tampa will also help to keep him fresher and more effective.

3. Having experienced veteran depth in the OLB rotation will also help to keep Gary and Smith fresher and more effective, and will help make sure they aren’t overused.

4. Pierre-Paul has always been reliable against the run throughout his career, he’s always been adept at forcing fumbles (he has only one year in his 12-year career where he hasn’t recorded a forced fumble and just 3 years when he’s only forced one), and his long arms enable him to bat down passes at the line of scrimmage (he should have fun with Dean Lowry)

5. Pierre-Paul would be cheap. The Packers currently have about 2.9 million in effective cap space. That would be enough to cover a potential one-year deal for Pierre-Paul at this stage in his career.

Two other interesting factors to consider as well: If you look at Pierre-Paul’s stat line, whenever he’s had a statistical “down” year (2 sacks or less), the next season has always been a “bounce-back” season for him (where he logged at least 6 more sacks). Also, with 91.5 career sacks, Pierre-Paul will be motivated to reach that 100 career sack mark. I’m not necessarily saying these things will amount to anything, but one should just keep them in mind.

You said this in your article, but we saw last year the difference of the defensive performance with vs. without having Whitney Mercilus on the field. Pierre-Paul would be an excellent fit for that type of role this year and fill one of the Packers’ biggest current needs.

If the Packers weren’t to sign Pierre-Paul, another equally good and (very) affordable option to fill the Packers’ depth need at OLB would be to trade for Browns edge rusher Chase Winovich. He was actually Rashan Gary’s teammate at Michigan before they got drafted in 2019. He had a down year in 2021, but he was dealing with an injury. When healthy, though, he can be an excellent, versatile rotational rusher and have a big on-field impact, and he’s shown lots of tantalizing upside.

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