GREEN BAY, Wis. — Don’t ask Mike Smith how many sacks Rashan Gary had during his career at Michigan.
He claims he doesn’t care.
Nor does he worry about where the Wolverines lined up Gary in their defense.
All the Green Bay Packers‘ new outside-linebackers coach sees is potential in the 12th overall pick in the draft.
That, and a versatility like he has never encountered.
The latter was on display this week during the Packers’ second open OTA practice, when Gary not only lined up as an edge rusher but then moved inside in a package that included both of the high-priced free-agent pass-rushers — Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith — along with last season’s team sacks leader, Kyler Fackrell.
“A guy that size and that speed and that athleticism, I’ve never seen it,” Mike Smith said. “I’ve been in the league for 11 years. You can do a lot of things with him. At Kansas City, where I was at before here, they had Dee Ford — he’s small [with] great get-off — and we had Justin Houston that’s a big, strong guy. You get a guy like Gary that’s both of them.”
On one play, Gary used his speed to gain the edge on Billy Turner, the presumptive starting right guard who was filling in at right tackle for Bryan Bulaga. On another, he and Za’Darius Smith moved inside along with defensive tackle Kenny Clark to push the middle of the pocket.
“That’s why he’s here, because he’s a versatile player,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “He can be on the edge, we can kick him inside. He’s an incredible athlete and we’ve just got to keep getting him familiarized with exactly what we’re asking him to do, and again, digging at those details so he can go out and execute at a high level.”
Some wonder where that high-level execution was at Michigan. Gary had only 3.5 sacks in nine games last season as a junior. That was after an injury that still requires him to wear a harness on his right shoulder. In his three-year college career, he posted just 9.5 sacks — not exactly eye-popping numbers for someone who’s 6-foot-5 and 277 pounds and ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine, the fastest time by anyone over 275 in recorded combine history.
“I never looked at the sacks,” Mike Smith said. “To me, that’s one thing you’re going to learn and I stressed in Kansas City and my guys bought into that. I care about pressure. Affecting the quarterback. That’s the No. 1 thing. I’ll take a guy that does his job play after play after play after play and be consistent and have zero sacks but he does his job and is affecting the quarterback.
“If you look at Dee Ford, he was No. 1 in the NFL last year [in pressures, according to Pro Football Focus] and Justin was fourth and we never talked about sacks. Those will come. If you have a room that believes the only way to get pressure is a sack, you’re going to have a very disappointed room in the NFL because these guys are good. I don’t care about the sack stuff. When I watched him, I watched him affecting the quarterback.”
Smith said he had Gary rated as the highest edge rusher in the draft, and that included No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa.
“We wouldn’t get [Bosa], but I want to see where he’s at and compare [Gary],” he said. “Going into that, I knew we had a chance. I honestly didn’t think he was going to 12 — I thought he was going to go way before that with how I evaluated him and looked at him. I thought he was the best in college football as an outside linebacker. I had him No. 1 because I believed in him, so I was very excited when we got him. I was running down the hallway. I know what he has and I know what he can do and I’m excited to work for him.”
When told that Smith gushed about him, Gary beamed.
“To have a coach who believes in me and has that faith in me to have me as that pick and put a word in for me actually means a lot,” Gary said. “Every day I’m here is a blessing; every day I’m here I’m going to work my tail off for him and do what I’ve got to do.”
Green Bay signing the two Smiths and returning Fackrell’s 10.5 sacks means Gary doesn’t have to be an every-down player right away. But he does have to play more spots than he did at Michigan.
“At Michigan I moved around, but here it’s a little different,” Gary said. “Now I get to stand up and go rush, or put my hand in the ground. But that’s enjoyable. That’s what I wanted to do. So this defense fits me well.”