GREEN BAY – Reggie Gilbert didn’t watch the NFL draft last month, tempting as it must’ve been. His future hung in the balance, but Gilbert had some studying to do.
He’s trying to learn new Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's playbook as quickly as possible. He hopes to be up to speed when organized team activities begin next week. So Gilbert’s TV stayed off during the last weekend of April, his apartment quiet as a library.
That’s not the approach of a player who expects another practice-squad spot this fall. No, Reggie Gilbert expects to play. He knew there was a good chance even before the Packers waited to draft an edge rusher until their 11th and final pick, surprising to most who follow the team.
That they barely bolstered their depth chart cleared Gilbert’s path. Perhaps no other player saw his status on the Packers’ roster upgraded more during the draft. Gilbert isn’t just on a collision course to crack the initial 53-man roster for the first time in his three seasons.
The Packers actually need him to produce.
“I know the opportunities are there for me,” Gilbert said. “It’s just a matter of what I do with it.”
On the outside, the Packers investing so much of their hopes in Gilbert — along with 2017 fourth-round pick Vince Biegel — is a risk. Behind Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, one of their most important positions is full of unknowns. If they don’t get more production, it could be the primary roadblock preventing them from reaching the Super Bowl.
Internally, it is possible the Packers’ tepid approach to drafting outside linebackers was intentional. It was a weak class for the position. Even more, the team seems genuinely excited about Gilbert.
After the draft’s opening round, general manager Brian Gutekunst foreshadowed his decision to not prioritize edge rushers, saying he expected improvement to come from within.
“I think we have some guys,” Gutekunst said, “that probably weren’t able to show what they can do last year as much as we would like to.”
So Gilbert studied through the draft. This offseason is a step-by-step process toward roster relevancy, Gilbert taking nothing for granted. “I’m hungry,” he said. “I’m definitely, definitely hungry.” Gilbert has been with the Packers for two years, but because he has yet to accrue a season on their active roster, he participated in the team’s rookie orientation this month.
After the first practice, Gilbert got a ringing endorsement from coach Mike McCarthy.
“I’ll tell you what,” McCarthy said, “Reggie Gilbert looks great. I was kidding with him yesterday, I said if he keeps running around the way he’s doing in pass coverage, I’m going to move him to tight end. It’s incredible what he’s done in his time here. You talk about a guy that has done everything and has taken advantage of every resource that’s been available to him. I mean, in my mind he’s already taken the second-year jump.
“It’s great having him out there. He’s a great example for these young players.”
Gilbert’s fluidity in open space might have been a surprise two years ago. He was a four-technique defensive end in college, lining up directly across from offensive tackles in the University of Arizona’s quirky 3-3-5 formation.
Through arduous offseasons, he has made the radical transition to outside linebacker. At 6-3, 261 pounds, Gilbert is the prototype for what the Packers seek in an edge rusher. He just had to learn how to play without his hand on the ground, starting from a three-point stance.
So each year since leaving Arizona, Gilbert has spent his offseasons at the Fischer Institute in Phoenix. He developed his pass rush under instructor Thurmond Moore, a specialist who works with several NFL players. Moore said Gilbert didn’t have to adjust physically, but mentally he rewired how he played.
In truth, Moore said, Gilbert needed a couple years to make the transition.
“You’re not in space as a 4-technique,” Moore said. “Then when you go to being out in space, all of the sudden now you go, ‘Oh, my goodness. There’s a lot of room.’”
Gilbert, who had 14 sacks in four college seasons, spent most of his first two NFL seasons on the Packers’ practice squad. He fell on the wrong side of the roster bubble following last year’s training camp. With the Packers out of playoff contention, he was finally promoted to the active roster in Week 16.
Gilbert had three quarterback hits against the Minnesota Vikings, then recorded his first sack one week later in the finale at Detroit. It was a pass-rush spark the Packers saw too infrequently last fall. At the NFL scouting combine in February, McCarthy said a “fair criticism” was to wonder why the Packers didn’t promote Gilbert sooner.
“We talked for weeks about bringing him up,” McCarthy said, “because he was kicking [butt] in practice.”
By the time McCarthy offered that public support, Gilbert was already working in Phoenix. Excited to build off his positive, two-game sample, Gilbert gave Moore a call almost immediately after the season ended in January.
They met each Monday, Wednesday and Friday this spring on an indoor turf field, each high-tempo session lasting an hour. They stripped down Gilbert’s pass rush to its basic elements, building his arsenal. One drill might focus on first-step acceleration, the next on hand speed and placement, the next on hip bend.
Gilbert has come a long way from when they first started making his transition, Moore said. Ultimately, it won’t matter if Gilbert doesn’t produce on the field. “There are no second chances,” Moore said.
This season, Gilbert is primed to get his chance.
“I can’t wait to see it,” Moore said.
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