Training camp is less than two weeks away for the Green Bay Packers. As part of my preview, I will be highlighting all 91 players on the Packers roster as I make my way through each position group, taking a look at what I’ve seen during the offseason programs, where things stand, expectations, and more. I’ll also be making a final roster prediction as well.
Continuing on with this series, I arrive at the edge rushers, a position on paper, at least, that looks greatly improved from this time a year ago, and that could lead to the Packers either going heavy at this position or making a tough decision.
This is a position where last offseason the depth was a big concern and we saw why once Rashan Gary was injured. There was a lack of steady pressure, and as a whole, this group has to be better against the run, specifically setting the edge and not allowing ball carriers to get outside.
"“You have got to play violent from start to finish, especially in the run game,” said Preston 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.”"
There is a lot of talent at this position, not only for 2023, but the Packers are positioned well at edge rusher for the coming years as well, with several young and high potential players. This unit playing at a high level is a must for the Green Bay defense. Overall success begins with pressuring the quarterback and slowing the run.
If you’ve missed any of the other articles in this series, you can find them below:
The Green Bay Packers defense very much missed Rashan Gary after his season was cut short. From Week 10 and on, the Packers struggled to generate regular pressure on the quarterback, which has a negative trickle-down effect to the rest of the defensive position groups. More time and clean pockets to throw from is usually a good thing for an offense. Overall, the Green Bay defense ranked 22nd in total pressures last season.
Prior to his injury, Gary was one of the better-performing edge rushers in football. Through nearly nine games, he had totaled 38 pressures, the fourth-most among edge rushers, and six sacks. Gary also held up well against the run, totaling the second-most run stops through nine games.
Gary will begin training camp on the PUP list, which means he cannot practice. He is eligible to be activated at any time, but if he starts the season there, he has to miss at least four games. Success for this Packers defense begins up front, both in pressuring the quarterback and being much better against the run. The return of Gary will provide a big and needed boost in each area.
Last season was a steady year for Preston Smith. He finished with 42 pressures and 10 sacks, according to PFF, but other than hitting double-digit sacks, he really didn’t stand out in any one area. Out of 57 eligible edge rushers, he ranked 43rd in total pressures, 35th in pass rush win rate, and 30th in run-stop rate.
The return of Gary, along with JJ Enagbare entering Year 2, and the addition of Lukas Van Ness may help Smith more than anyone, as it will take some of the attention off of him. 26 of his 42 total pressures last season came with Gary on the field.
At 30 years old, Smith is now the last of Brian Gutekunst’s impressive 2019 free agent class still in Green Bay, and he is the oldest edge rusher on the team.
Lukas Van Ness
The addition of Lukas Van Ness brings power and versatility to the Packers’ edge rusher rotation. What’s clear when watching Van Ness for only a few snaps is his burst off the ball and the pop he puts on an offensive tackle. There was one rep during OTAs where he had Yosh Nijman on his heels.
Van Ness began his career at Iowa as an interior defender and didn’t become an edge rusher until his final season. With this skill set, Gutekunst mentioned that we could see Van Ness used in a Za’Darius Smith-like role, where he is a stand-up pass rusher from the interior.
For most of OTAs and minicamp, Van Ness was the fourth edge rusher option behind Smith, JJ Enagbare, and Justin Hollins. Early on, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Packers use him strictly in pass-rushing situations, allowing him to become consistently effective in that area before adding more responsibilities to his plate. As part of his development, Van Ness will have to continue cultivating additional pass-rush moves–he simply can’t run through every offensive tackle.
It ended up being a solid rookie season for Enagbare, especially as a fifth-round pick. Once Gary was injured, his role expanded. He finished the year with 25 pressures and three sacks. Of the 18 rookie edge rushers from 2022 who played at least 20% of their team’s pass rush snaps, Enagbare ranked third in pass rush win rate, trailing only Cameron Thomas and Aidan Hutchinson.
Oftentimes in Year 2, we see players make big jumps as they become more comfortable with their roles and begin to play much fast. It will be important that Enagbare take that step, not only for his own progression, but this is a very talented edge rusher room the Packers have, and he will need to if he wants to continue seeing steady snaps.
"“His knowledge of the game is a whole lot better,” said Preston Smith of Enagbare during OTAs. “He knows what he’s doing. I think this year he’s been working hard in the offseason, he’s been training hard, and he’s been doing really well.“Just coming into that next year, he has to make a big jump and find a role. Find something to be great at, and find some moves that work for him on the field. He’s got to play with a lot more violence, he’s just got to continue to be consistent and work hard like he’s been doing.”"
Justin Hollins ended up being another very good in-season addition from Gutekunst. From Weeks 12 through 18, he ranked 26th in pass rush win rate and 27th in run stop rate. Pass rush coordinator Jason Rebrovich also discussed how quickly Hollins became a leader in the edge rusher room.
From a salary cap standpoint, Hollins is not a roster lock, with the Packers incurring a dead cap hit of only $155,000 if they were to cut him. But based on how he was utilized during offseason programs, it would appear that Hollins is going to have a good-sized role this season. He was often lining up with the starters across from Smith and was working with the special teams units as well.
A year from now, we could be talking about what a steal it was that the Packers were able to sign Brenton Cox as an undrafted rookie. He is a former five-star high school recruit who played at both Georgia and Florida, where he was productive as both a pass rusher and run defender in the SEC, totaling 74 pressures over his final two seasons and grading out well against the run. However, he largely went undrafted because he was dismissed from both programs.
Cox was one of the few players that LaFleur said had stood out during offseason programs. In a crowded and talented edge rusher room, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Packers treat this position like they did offensive tackle in 2022. Similarly to Caleb Jones last season, I could see Green Bay wanting to keep Brenton Cox on the 53-man roster to develop rather than trying to squeeze him on the practice squad where another team could sign him away. Of course, like every undrafted rookie, it’s going to be vital that Cox continue to perform well when the pads come on.
"“He was highly recruited,” said Packers pass rush coordinator Jason Rebrovich. “There’s a lot of guys that have trials and tribulations in college. The best thing I saw about him was how he is as a player.“When I got a phone list through this process and I called the young man, I said ‘hey man, I don’t want nothing to know about football. I want to know who I’m going to get on a daily basis. Am I going to get this knucklehead that’s gone through this stuff? Or am I going to get a guy that wants to be a pro and have the opportunity to become a star in this league?’ Because he has a lot of talent. He needs to be pushed, and a lot of guys need that. They need that kick in the rear end.”"
La’Darius Hamilton has largely been on the Packers’ practice squad the last two seasons but has been called upon when there have been injuries. In 46 pass rush snaps the last two seasons, he has totaled four pressures, and for what it’s worth, he hasn’t graded out all that well against the run. Although he did see some snaps during OTAs with the second-team defense, the fact that it appears that Hamilton doesn’t have a clear path to making the final roster goes to show the Packers improved depth at this position.
Since being drafted in the seventh round of 2020, Jonathan Garvin has been at the back-end of the Packers’ edge rusher rotation. However, like Hamilton, it’s difficult to see him making the 53-man roster this season. Last season, Garvin totaled just seven pressures and no sacks. Despite the Packers not having Gary and, as a unit, not creating consistent pressure, Garvin was still a healthy scratch on a few occasions during the second half of the season. If I were building out the depth chart right now, I would have him behind Hamilton.
The Packers signed Keshawn Banks as an undrafted rookie following this year’s draft. He is an experienced player coming out of San Diego State with almost 2,500 total snaps. Along with lining up as a traditional edge rusher, Banks has played inside as well. Banks’ best collegiate season was in 2021 when he totaled 52 pressures. He has been a solid run defender throughout his career as well. Banks is likely a practice squad player for Green Bay this season.
The 6’6″ – 259 pound Kenneth Odumegwu joined the Packers this offseason through the NFL International Pathway Program. From Nigeria, Odumegwu has minimal football experience but has the size and athleticism teams look for at the edge rusher position. He will have the opportunity to develop his game this season, but he does not count towards the Packers’ 90-man roster.
Preston Smith, Rashan Gary, Lukas Van Ness, JJ Enagbare, Justin Hollins, and Brenton Cox
I’ve decided to go heavy at this position and keep six players. Depending on when Rashan Gary is activated off the PUP list, he may or may not be on the initial 53-man roster, but eventually, he will be added back, and my guess right now is that the Packers keep six edge rushers at that time.
We know Gary, Smith, Enagbare, and Van Ness will be on this roster. As I’ve already mentioned when discussing Hollins, I just don’t see them releasing him after how he played last season and the fact that he has been with the starters for much of the offseason. I also think the Packers keep Cox as a developmental player – like Caleb Jones – because of his potential, but would be worried about losing him if he were on the practice squad. Typically, under LaFleur, the Packers have rostered five-edge rushers, but if they do keep six, that means they will have to go light at another position group.