Last month, many were expecting the Green Bay Packers to draft a pass rusher, or even multiple pass rushers, high in the NFL Draft. It makes sense, considering the Packers were 17th in total pressures generated from the front seven (218). However, Green Bay was only nine pressures ahead of 25th place. The Packers struggled to stop the pass last season, finishing second to last. Bringing pressure is one area to be able to do that, but the Packers did not draft a single pass rusher in the draft.
I do believe one of the reasons they did not draft a pass rusher early was the lack of quality pass rushers in the draft, outside of North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb. Another reason I believe they avoided taking one is new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s faith in second-year pass rusher Vince Biegel and third-year linebacker Reggie Gilbert. I actually thought he had this feeling leading up to the draft. I didn’t think he’d pass on drafting one in the draft, period, but I expected him to maybe wait until the third round.
Pettine amazingly has produced great defense after great defense despite not bringing down opposing quarterbacks in the backfield much. Only two times in seven seasons has his defense finished in the top half of the league in sacks, which includes finishing 28th and 27th in his two years with Cleveland (if the Browns count). His defenses have had great cornerbacks, which makes sense why they took Louisville’s Jaire Alexander and Iowa’s Josh Jackson in the first two rounds.
However, after Nick Perry and Clay Matthews, the cupboard is pretty bare as far as pass rushers go. Perry is a very good pass rusher when on the field…..but he has a problem actually staying on the field. The first round pick in 2012 has never played a full 16 games and has missed at least four games in three of his seasons. Matthews has missed six games in the past two seasons, and his days as a premier pass rusher are over. He did lead the team in pressures, though, but with just 36.
With that being said, the Packers have two young linebackers ready to make the jump from seldom-used in their first years on the active roster to guys who can wreak havoc on opposing offenses in their second year. Those players are Reggie Gilbert and Vince Biegel. The pair combined for just one sack and 18 tackles in 11 games, but there is plenty of reason for optimism as the two begin 2018.
Biegel was selected as the first pick of the fourth round (108th overall) in the 2017 NFL Draft out of the University of Wisconsin. After sacking opposing quarterbacks 20.5 times (8th in school history) as a Badger, he was thrilled to stay home and play for the Packers. But, his season essentially ended before it started. During the rookie orientation camp, Biegel aggravated an injury that required surgery. He would miss the entire offseason, and put him behind the eight ball early on.
The former Badger battled back, though, and registered one tackle for loss and three quarterback pressures in his nine games played. His 2017 season was basically a redshirt year for him, and with a full offseason, he should be ready to rock come August. As many Wisconsin fans (as well as Big Ten fans) can attest, a healthy Biegel is trouble for the opposition.
Biegel missed a pair of games in 2016 for Wisconsin (both losses, by a combined 14), but still managed to pressure opposing quarterbacks 51 times, according to Pro Football Focus, as a senior. Those 51 pressures were second among all outside linebackers. And for as good of a pass rusher as he is, Biegel is even better against the run. That stout run defense was on display in his debut against Detroit, as he helped the Packers make a goal-line stand when he stuffed Ameer Abdullah short of the end zone.
Gilbert, on the other hand, was an undrafted free agent out of the University of Arizona. The 25-year-old Gilbert spent his entire rookie season in 2016 on the practice squad, as well as the first 14 games of 2017. He was elevated to the active roster for the final two games against Minnesota and Detroit and did not disappoint. He made people wonder why he was on the practice squad for the first 14 weeks of the season, playing behind players he would out-perform when called upon.
In his two games at the end of the season, he performed better than guys like Kyler Fackrell had all season. Minnesota only allowed 27 sacks all year, which was tied for seventh fewest in the league. Gilbert did not register a sack in the loss to Minnesota, but he pressured Case Keenum four times and was able to hit the Vikings signal caller another three times. He would follow that up with his first sack in the NFL in the week 17 game in Detroit.
There is a lot of potential in these two players, and Pettine and Gutekunst know it. With Perry and Matthews a bit injury-prone, the Packers will need a few more pass rushers to step up and help the 31st-ranked pass defense. With what we saw last year from Gilbert and now with a whole offseason to work by Biegel, these two are players to watch as we head into the 2018 season.——————
Jonathon Zenk is a writer for PackersTalk.com. He is a huge Packers fan, and a graduate of The University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. You can follow Jonathon on Twitter at @jzenk42