Quick thoughts on Packers position groups: Improved depth at edge rusher

ASHWAUBENON, WISCONSIN - MAY 31: Lukas Van Ness #90 of the Green Bay Packers participates in an OTA practice session at Don Hutson Center on May 31, 2023 in Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
ASHWAUBENON, WISCONSIN - MAY 31: Lukas Van Ness #90 of the Green Bay Packers participates in an OTA practice session at Don Hutson Center on May 31, 2023 in Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

As part of my preparation for training camp at the end of July, as well as the preseason, I have been taking a look at each of the Green Bay Packers position groups on the 90-man roster.

Within this series, I have been diving into each specific position, sharing my thoughts on what I’ve both seen and heard during the practices that were open to the media throughout OTAs and minicamp. I’ll also discuss my expectations within each position group, questions I still have, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Up next, I continue with the defensive side of the ball with the edge rushers. If you’ve missed any of the previous articles in this series, you can find them below.


Running back

Tight ends 

Offensive tackle

Interior offensive line

Wide receiver

Interior defensive line

Current roster: Rashan Gary, Preston Smith, JJ Enagbare, Justin Hollins, Lukas Van Ness, Jonathan Garvin, La’Darius Hamilton, Brenton Cox, and Keshawn Banks

– The depth of this position group was a concern at this time last summer, and we saw why once Rashan Gary was injured. As a position group, the Packers struggled to generate consistent quarterback pressure without Gary, ranking 22nd in total pressures as a team. Like the interior defensive line, edge rusher is heavily rotated, with four or five players seeing playing time each week. On paper, anyways, the depth looks much improved with JJ Enagbare entering his second season, Justin Hollins with a full offseason in the system, along with the addition of Lukas Van Ness.

– The real deadline isn’t until free agency next offseason, but one would think that we would hear about an extension for Rashan Gary sooner than later. Although he’s coming off a knee injury, I can’t imagine that is impacting whether or not the Packers want to extend him–he was one of the better pass rushers in football prior to his injury. But rather, I’m guessing this is part of the negotiating process. David Bakhtiari’s extension wasn’t signed until late summer, and the season had already begun before Elgton Jenkins’ deal became official. So no need to panic. Once complete, an extension should also create between $3-$4 million in cap space for the Packers this season. Since Gary is playing on a fifth-year option, he comes with a current cap hit of around $11 million.

– I go into greater detail here, but in short, from a contract standpoint, Hollins is not a roster lock, with the Packers taking on very little dead cap if they were to release him. But given where he was playing during OTAs and minicamp, it would appear that he is going to play a good-sized role on this team. During the open practice sessions, Hollins was often with the starters, lined up across from Preston Smith, and took some starting special teams snaps as well. From Weeks 12 through 18 last season after joining the Packers, Hollins ranked 27th in PFF’s run stop metric and 26th in pass rush win rate among all edge rushers. Pass rush coordinator Jason Rebrovich also discussed earlier this offseason the leadership role Hollins took on within his position group.

– All eyes will be on the interior defensive line, and if they can perform better against the run – a must for this defense – but the edge rushers as a group have to be better as well, specifically setting the edge and not letting the ball carriers get outside. Following one practice, I asked Smith what a run defense mindset – something Jerry Montgomery had spoken about – meant to the edge rushers:

"“You have got to play violent from start to finish, especially in the run game,” said Smith. “We preach in our room violent get off and violent hands, and that has to roll over to the run game. So when you’re getting off the ball, you have to get off violently, and when you engage the offensive lineman, you have to do it violently, and you have to get off blocks violently to make tackles and make sure that we make good tackles behind the line of scrimmage and that we make plays that help the defense put us in great situations like second and long or third and long.”"

– The burst and power that Van Ness possesses become crystal clear after watching him for only a few snaps. There were two snaps in particular that stand out during team drills, one where he pushed Caleb Jones into the backfield and another on a different day where he had Yosh Nijman on his heels. With that said, while it’s still early and a lot can change, a lot of Van Ness’ snaps came with the second-team defense. I know he was the 13th pick, but I don’t find this too surprising. At least right away, I expect Van Ness’ role to be almost strictly as a pass rusher before more is added to his plate.

– In addition to rushing from the edge, following the draft, GM Brian Gutekunst said that we could see Van Ness used similarly to Za’Darius Smith when he was with the team, meaning that we will see Van Ness as a stand-up pass rusher in the A-gaps on obvious passing situations.

– As part of Van Ness’ development, he will have to find a more consistent secondary pass rush move to leverage. While he packs a lot of power, he also can’t expect to run through every offensive tackle he comes across.

– How things shake out at this position group from a numbers standpoint will be interesting. During the Matt LaFleur era, the Packers have rostered five edge rushers three times and four edge rushers once, but could they keep six? We know that Gary, Smith, Enagbare, and Van Ness are roster locks, and Hollins is very close to that. But Brenton Cox is a name to watch this summer. Following OTAs, Cox was one of a few players that LaFleur specifically mentioned when discussing who stood out during those practices. He’s a very high-upside player, and I could see Green Bay taking a similar approach with him as they did with offensive tackle Caleb Jones last season by keeping him on the 53-man roster, perhaps because they were concerned another team would sign him away off the practice squad. If it were to come down to Hollins or Cox, do the Packers choose Hollins’ stability and leadership for a season or Cox’s potential?

– We talk about Year 2 leaps often, and Enagbare is certainly someone who falls into that category. Out of 18 rookie edge rushers in 2022 who played at least 20% of their team’s defensive snaps, Enagabre ranked third in pass rush win rate.

– Jonathan Garvin has been a regular on the Packers’ 53-man roster since being drafted, but it appears that he is going to be squeezed out this year. The recent additions of Enagbare, Hollins, Van Ness, and even Cox have left little room. For Garvin, the production never was consistent, and there were a few instances last season where he was a healthy scratch on game days.

– La’Darius Hamilton has been primarily on the practice squad but has seen some snaps when injuries occur. He did see some snaps with the second-team defense, but similarly to Garvin, Hamilton has been knocked down the depth chart with the additions made over the last year.

– Another name we could see lining up at edge rusher is Quay Walker, who took 75 snaps along the defensive front last season, according to PFF. When pass rush coordinator Jason Rebrovich was asked how Walker fit into the defense as a pass rusher, he replied with, “yes.”