Green Bay Packers Off-Season Positional Review: Outside Linebacker

This week we’re checking in on arguably the most critical position group on the Green Bay Packers defense: the outside linebackers. 

A relentless pass rush can single-handedly win games. No facet of the defense is more important, and having too many pass rushers is still not enough. 

Not to say that the OLB is one dimensional, the very best can drop in to coverage, spy the opposing quarterback and assist in the running game as well. 

But nothing will garner attention (and a Brinks truck worth of cash) faster than the consistent ability to affect the passing game. 

Green Bay Packers Outside Linebacker Rashan Gary #52

Rashan Gary:

I’ll admit it, I was amongst the skeptics when Rashan Gary was drafted 12th overall out of Michigan by the Packers in the 2019 NFL draft. 

Gary was the number one recruit in the country  coming out of high school in 2016. 

He also blew up the combine with an unreal 4.58 second 40 yard dash time at 6-4, 277 lbs, earning a 9.95 Relative Athletic Score https://ras.football/2020/01/17/rashan-gary-ras/?amp

That’s all roses, but what about his collegiate production, or lack-thereof?

9.5 sacks over the course of 3 seasons. For reference TJ Watt had 17 sacks in two collegiate season at Wisconsin, and older brother JJ with 15 over 3 seasons. 

That’s not nothing, but also not exactly blue chip production for a seemingly superhuman athlete. 

Some will remember that there were also whispers that questioned Gary’s level of commitment to football amongst his other interests. 

My skepticism was basically summed up by the old draftnik adage: “(He) Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane”. 

That all seems like ancient history now, and I’m happily eating crow while writing this. 

At a young 24 years old, Gary is the man in Green Bay and the sky is the limit. 

It’s been a treat to watch him refine his raw talents into a lethal arsenal of brutish pass rush moves. 

Objectively, Gary is already a top 10-15 pass rusher in the NFL and it would shock no one if he shot through the stratosphere in 2022.

But one man does not a pass rush make.. 

Green Bay Packers Outside Linebacker Za’Darius Smith #55

Za’Darius Smith: 

I didn’t know much about Za’Darius Smith when he signed a 4 year, $66 million dollar deal in 2019, agreeing to leave the Baltimore Ravens. 

In 2018, and for majority of the 20 previous seasons, the Ravens had fielded top defenses and frankly I didn’t need anymore convincing than that. 

Brian Gutekunst smartly bet that Smith was going to be another great asset touched by the King Midas of defense himself, Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome. 

Of course, the four year deal signed by Smith was backloaded to align not coincidentally with Smith’s age 30 season. 

In retrospect, the day Rashan Gary was drafted all but guaranteed Smith wouldn’t see the expiration date of his contract. 

I think when we’re lamenting losing a player like Smith (who’s expected to be a cap casualty with a $27 million Monopoly money cap number), it’s apparent that this was Brian Gutekunst’s plan all along. 

Z was a game changing pass rusher and plus-run defender in the first two seasons of his deal, totaling 26 sacks and 29 TFLs to go along with two Pro Bowl selections.

Year 3 in Green Bay brought some reports of Smith’s displeasure regarding his contract status. Then came a season ending back injury suffered in week one against the New Orleans Saints. 

Brian Gutekunst still got two elite level season’s of play with his gamble on Smith, even with an injury lost third season. BG was able to draft and develop Z’s replacement in Rashan Gary. 

So if this is all part of the Packers top personnel man’s long term plan, what’s next?

Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith waits on the snap during the second half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Preston Smith:

I think it’s far from a slam dunk that Preston Smith will be back as a Packer for 2022. Preston has certainly been an above average contributor throughout his time in Green Bay, but he is not without warts. 

Smith has many of the same things working against him that the other Smith “brother”, Za’darius has.

Age, cost and question marks: 

*Preston Smith is only a month and a half younger than Za’darius. However, Preston has never missed a game in his career, Z has missed 24 of them. 

*Preston is due to count $19.7 million currently against the 2022 cap vs. $27.6 million for Za’darius. The cap savings by releasing Preston would save $12.5 million vs. $15.3 million for Z. Not that $3 million dollars wouldn’t do a lot in a cash strapped year, but the difference in savings between those two was not as great as I was expecting

*Preston has this unusual career arc where he statistically performs best in odd-numbered years. In the odd years he totaled 37 sacks over 4 seasons, in the even years just 12.5 takedowns scattered over 3 seasons. Za’darius actually has fewer career sacks than Preston (44.5 vs. 49.5) but part of that can be attributed to Z’s first full time work coming when he got to Green Bay.

So what does it all mean? 

My opinion is that if the well isn’t poisoned with Za’darius Smith, he would be my pick to retain over Preston Smith. 

Za’Darius has shown (when healthy) that he can take over a game. While Preston Smith has been steady and certainly an asset, he just doesn’t offer that same intensity and ability to rise to the occasion. 

My case was made for me when Z had a critical 3rd down sack on the defense’s first series against the 49ers in the divisional round. 

Yes the back injury is slightly worrisome, and I’m not sure Za’darius even wants to be in Green Bay any longer, but I’m just not sure hanging on to Preston Smith makes sense either at his current cap number. 

Whitney Mercilus:

Whitney Mercilus was another potentially impactful “all-in” signing made by Brian Gutekunst in late October.

Mercilus played in four regular season games after coming over from the Houston Texans. He tallied a sack against the Seahawks and then promptly tore his biceps putting him on the shelf for the remainder of the season.

Miraculously, Mercilus has able to suit up for the Packers divisional round playoff game, but only tallied 12 snaps on defense.

He’s an unrestricted free agent this off-season.

Maybe Whitney Mercilus won’t be back in Green Bay, but I really liked BG’s rationale for bringing him in. Whether the Packers decide to keep Preston or Za’darius Smith or neither. Veteran situational pass rushers can be very valuable.

Let Rashan Gary and Kenny Clark be the big usage hogs. I’d love to see a stable of 2-3 vet pass rushers in the twilight of their career that could be rotated in and out.

Perhaps easier said than done.

A couple of free agent names worth watching are Jerry Hughes, Justin Houston, Mario Addison, Jason Pierre-Paul if the prices are right. Hughes and Addison particularly have shown that pass rushing skills don’t necessarily degrade that quickly with age (both 34 years old, respectively).

Reserves:

Jonathan Garvin – Entering his third season out of the University of Miami, Jon Garvin is probably the most useful of the current OLB reserves. Garvin played in 16 games in 2021, pressed into a larger role after Za’Darius Smith’s season ending injury in week 1. Garvin made one start and tallied 1.5 sacks. While not setting the world on fire with his play, I think he’s cemented himself as a key backup and will just be turning 23 years old this season.

Tipa Galeai – Tipa has been in the Packers system since mid-September 2020. He just turned 25 and tallied a single sack and 12 tackles over seven games in 2021. At 6-5, 235 he’s close to prototypical size and has shown pretty good burst off the edge. Tipa will need an extremely strong camp to earn a roster spot, I think he’s earmarked for the practice squad again but with the omnipresent injury bug, he could be in line for snaps at some point.

Chauncey Rivers – Rivers is a lotto ticket, signed off of the waiver wire from the Ravens in early August. Turns 25 before the start of the regular, has played in 5 career games over the span of two seasons tallying 2 tackles. Worse yet, Rivers is woefully undersized at 6-2.

Summary:

Brian Gutekunst & co. have to get the OLB/Edge group right.

Rashan Gary is turning out to be a slam dunk. The Smith Bro’s have both outperformed their contracts but neither of them are guaranteed to be back in Green Bay.

I’m expecting a combination of a top-100 draft pick and veteran reinforcement to round out the OLB group.

We know the Packers will have a strong secondary, but we also know how critical that the pass rush is to their efficacy.

It’s a passing league, let’s hope we see opposing QBs on the ground more often than not in 2022.

You can follow Adam on twitter at @adamjcarlson28.

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