Over the last few years, the Green Bay Packers have had their share of great Edge Rushers. Lambeau Legends like Clay Matthews III and future Hall of Famers like Julius Peppers have haunted opposing Quarterbacks in Green and Gold. But there was always something missing with these players. Depth at their position. For many of Clay Matthews’ years in Green Bay, he never had a good running mate on the opposite side. Even when Julius Peppers arrived in 2014, there was an issue with depth beside them at Edge Rusher. Lack of players good enough to get after the QB when Matthews and Peppers needed a breather. Fast forward five years after their time, the Packers finally have that Edge Rusher depth that was needed.
Heading in to the 2023 offseason there were a lot of questions on the Edge. With Rashan Gary coming off an ACL injury in 2022 would he be ready for week 1? Would Preston Smith even still be with the team? Could Kingsley Enagbare make a Year 2 leap? Each of these questions seem to be answered heading into week 1 vs the Bears, and then some. The Packers have a really special group of players at the Edge rusher position for the 2023 season.
Obi Wan Kenobi says to Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode IV, “Strike me down and I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Rashan Gary was on his way to a career year in 2022 before he went down with an ACL injury in week 9. With six sacks already under his belt, he was on pace to have a career-high with over 11 on the season. It was a huge blow to the Packers to have him go down due to injury. But this year he is shocking everyone by returning in time for week 1, and he seems to be more powerful than we can possibly imagine.
Rashan Gary is going to head in to 2023 with a chip on his shoulder. He’s making up for lost time. During Training Camp in the time he did see the field, he was constantly ending up in the backfield after a pass rush. He’d always make sure everyone noticed that he would’ve had a sack on that play had it been allowed. I believe 2023 is the year we finally see what Rashan Gary is fully capable of. We were robbed of it in 2022, so we’re going to have to settle for 2023. I only hope that we can sign him to a contract extension before he goes off and gets too expensive.
Heading in to his fifth season with the Packers, ninth season in the league, Preston Smith is still as effective as ever. He might be the old man in the room, but he’s definitely not slowing down. Despite losing his running mate, Rashan Gary in week 9, Smith still managed five sacks in the second half of the season, 8.5 overall.
The question lays on whether or not this will be Preston Smith’s final year as a Packer. It certainly could be. Turning 31 in November, and with there being a potential out of his contract after this year, if the young guns behind him show promise, this could be Smith’s Green and Gold swan song. Without a doubt, Smith will not go down quietly and will likely do everything he can to insure either he isn’t let go, or he has plenty of interest elsewhere. It will be nice to see how Smith produces with a healthy Rashan Gary and the opportunity for staying fresh due to the capabilities of those behind him.
For being a 5th round pick, Kingsley Enagbare had a great rookie season. Taking over on the Edge for an injured Rashan Gary, Enagbare certainly took advantage of his opportunity. He registered 3 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and 8 QB hits in that time. The Packers knew they had a player in Enagbare but I don’t think they expected him to show that type of progress so quickly.
Heading in to 2023, many folks seemed comfortable with Kingsley Enagbare replacing Rashan Gary until Gary’s return from injury. In Training Camp, he made his presence felt often. He also showed out in the second preseason game vs the Patriots with two big sacks including a strip-sack and fumble recovery. Enagbare may not be starting week 1, but with Rashan Gary likely on a pitch count the first week or two, he will have his opportunities to show out once again to kick off the season. I think Enagbare could show he’s ready for a bigger role this season.
Lukas Van Ness
The 13th overall pick has shown so far that he is definitely a raw talent. He has the athleticism and strength to be a force off the edge. Even perhaps a force with his hand in the dirt. But it’s going to take some time. Packer fans luckily have the comparison of Rashan Gary to show for Van Ness. He might be working on his technique and still figuring out how to make plays in the NFL, but he could still surprise a few yet this season.
Van Ness is a very intelligent player. He might not show out in the first 4-5 games of the season, but you might see him start to come around by week 7-8. He’s shown he has a great power to speed transition in the pass rush and has gotten the best of some of the Packers top Tackles a few times in camp. Consistency will need to be what Van Ness finds soon. He has a high motor that will benefit him when his confidence builds, and hopefully we’ll see him appear on the pass rush stat sheet soon.
Hollins was a nice depth addition for the Packers in 2022. Brought in after being with the Rams for 10 games, Hollins found himself with 2.5 sacks and 4 QB hits in six games with the Packers. Hollins will likely find himself once again in a rotational position when it comes to the edge but could have the opportunity to show he belongs there permanently this season.
Brenton Cox Jr.
Rounding out this group is an undrafted rookie that looked every bit the part that his name should’ve been called back in April. When Brenton Cox Jr. was on the field, you knew it. He led the Packers in preseason QB pressures with seven, he was batting down passes, and just seemed to be around the ball at all times. He was one of those camp underdog standouts that I couldn’t resist putting on my 53-man roster prediction. And was thrilled to see him get the nod.
Given the talent ahead of him however, defensive snaps could be low for Brenton Cox Jr this season. He will likely have to cut his teeth in Special Teams the majority of the time if he is on the gameday roster. However, this is a season for testing the youth of this football team. So, there is a chance Cox will see a few snaps in the edge rushing rotation. I would mainly see it in non-crucial situations, but I guess never say never. It would be nice to see if number 57 can show that he’s worth even more than that.
The front seven this season are going to have to pick up the slack for what I believe is a weak safety group for the Packers. Luckily, I think the defensive line depth is the best we’ve had in years as well. I think we’re going to see a lot more pressure from the Edge this year. This group is hungry. And if the D-line gets pressure up the middle, those Edge rushers could feast when QB’s start to hear footsteps. I’m excited about this group in 2023, hopefully they can stay healthy and show what they’re all truly capable of.
Greg Meinholz is a lifelong devoted Packer fan. A contributor to PackersTalk as well as CheeseheadTV. Follow him on Twitter at @gmeinholz. for Packers commentary, random humor, beer endorsements, and occasional Star Wars and Marvel ramblings.