Packers itching to turn emerging Rashan Gary loose against Saints

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - In his first practice in pads since the start of training camp, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith took about 18 snaps and may have proved to his coaches and the team’s medical staff that he is ready to play in the season opener against New Orleans on Sunday.

“He looked good,” defensive coordinator Joe Barry said.

Despite the coaches’ optimism, it’s possible they’re trying to deceive the Saints about his status so they have to spend time crafting a defensive game plan for him. Given Smith has practiced just three times since camp began due to a back injury, it would surprise no one if the Packers held him out of the opener.

If Smith doesn’t play – and even if he does get some snaps – third-year pro Rashan Gary is going to be the primary outside linebacker opposite starter Preston Smith.

In his two seasons, the 2019 first-round pick has only played 40 snaps or more twice and given Za'Darius Smith averaged 54 per game last year, this will be a major test of Gary’s ability to affect a game. He finished second on the team in sacks last year with five and was around the quarterback infinitely more than he was his rookie year.

He’ll be facing two excellent tackles in Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, so this should be a good gauge for where he’s at.

“I'm ecstatic about where Rashan is, where he's at from the start until where he's at right now,” Barry said. “I'm really looking forward to just seeing what he's going to be all about this year.”

Outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said Za’Darius Smith about doubled the number of snaps he took on Wednesday and agreed with Barry that he looked good. But he said it would probably be a game-time decision on whether he plays.

Asked about what Gary would bring if he started, Smith became emphatic.

“He’s pretty damn good, I’m not going to lie,” Smith said. “I’m just getting goosebumps just talking about him because it’s just all coming together. It’s his third year. He knows his rushing style, who he is, how he’s going to set people up, what his strength is, all that stuff.

Packers linebacker Rashan Gary (52) could see extended playing time Sunday.

“And I’ve expanded his role with these (coverage) drops. He graded out the highest with the drops this training camp over Preston (Smith), which is pretty impressive because Preston is pretty damn good at dropping.”

The Packers will have to declare an injury designation for Za’Darius Smith on Friday.

New captains elected

The Packers elected new captains and instead of going with three – one for offense, one for defense and one for special teams – coach Matt LaFleur chose the top seven vote-getters from a locker room-wide election.

LaFleur said he was blown away by how many players got votes.

“We had 27 different players receive at least one vote, which is incredible to think that you have that many guys that are in consideration,” he said. “I think that's pretty rare. And we are a pretty veteran team, but even some of our young guys, you can tell are going to be become great leaders.”

Chosen this year were quarterback Aaron Rodgers, receiver Davante Adams, tight end Marcedes Lewis, cornerback Jaire Alexander, nose tackle Kenny Clark, safety Adrian Amos and kicker Mason Crosby.

“I think we had 10 players that got more than 10 votes,” LaFleur said. “So, I just think that speaks to the locker room and the character that we have in this building.”

The past two seasons, Rodgers, Crosby and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith were the captains. Smith did not make the list this time around and 11 minutes after the club announced the selections on Twitter, he tweeted “Wow”, with a hand-on-the-chin emoji.

Numerous fans replied to his tweet asking if he was referring to the captain’s election or news that his former team, the Baltimore Ravens, suffered two devastating injuries in practice, but he did not clarify. The tweet came well before news of Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt’s massive deal broke on Twitter.

Hotter than hot

Tight end Marcedes Lewis played 12 seasons in Jacksonville and said when he was first exposed to the summer heat, he was blown away.

When asked to compare the hottest Wisconsin days with the heat that should be in full effect when the Packers play the Saints at TIAA Stadium in the late afternoon Sunday, he deadpanned, “This is not heat.”

He said there is no comparison between the two because of the humidity.

“When I wasn’t on the field or when we had a day off, I swear, every time I walked out of the house, I was like, ‘I’ve got to take another shower’, you know what I mean?” he said. “It’s definitely like that.”

LaFleur is stressing to his team to hydrate as much as possible. Lewis said that at this time of the year, he drinks a gallon of water anyway, so he doesn’t need to do much else, although he said he’ll try to drink 8 to 16 ounces of water every hour while he’s on the flight to Jacksonville.

Guess again

When the Packers faced the Saints in Week 3 last year, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen had not done much blitzing against their opponents.

Then, they came out blitzing quarterback Aaron Rodgers left and right.

The Packers eventually adjusted to it and Rodgers ended up throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-30 victory.

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You would think with two rookies – center Josh Myers and right guard Royce Newman – lined up next to one another they would attack Rodgers again. But offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said they can’t assume anything in the first game of the year.

“Anybody you go against, you never know what is going to be thrown at you,” Hackett said. “When you look at the players, you just kind of tell them they have to trust their training, trust the system because there’s always going to be something that you haven’t seen.

“It’s definitely going to be a challenge.”

Injury report

The Packers added Preston Smith to the injury report after he missed practice with a head laceration. Mike Smith said he wasn’t sure what happened to Smith and was just told he couldn’t practice.

Safety Vernon Scott (hamstring) was the only other player who did not practice. Za’Darius Smith and nose tackle Tyler Lancaster (back) were limited.

The Saints added starting cornerback Marshon Lattimore to the injury report. He was listed as limited with a knee injury. Their other starting corner, Ken Crawley (hamstring) has not practiced this week and isn’t expected to play.

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