The Green Bay Packers select Iowa edge rusher Lukas Van Ness with the No. 13 overall pick in the NFL draft

Ryan Wood
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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GREEN BAY – He had a decision to make four months ago, after capping his Iowa career with a half-sack and tackle for loss in a bowl win, the kind of game that could have left Lukas Van Ness wanting more.

He’d waited three years to get his chance. Van Ness entered Iowa, a meat-and-potatoes kind of program, as a defensive lineman weighing 220 pounds. It was 2020, a “weird time” as Van Ness remembered it, college football taking a hiatus because of COVID-19. Van Ness spent his social distancing in the weight room. He gained 60 pounds in his freshman season. His obsessive workouts inspired the nickname “Hercules.”

By his redshirt freshman year, Van Ness was the best pass rusher in Iowa’s program. There was just one problem: this was Iowa. Kirk Ferentz, more than most, gives his snaps to upperclassmen who’ve earned the equity. Van Ness was stuck behind a pair of fifth-year seniors last season, meaning he wasn’t getting any starts.

The Green Bay Packers selected Iowa defensive end/outside linebacker Lukas Van Ness with the No. 13 pick in the NFL draft.

If he stayed in school, Van Ness knew he was graduating into prime real estate on Iowa’s depth chart. He gathered with his close circle after the Hawkeyes’ bowl win against Kentucky, discussing the future with his family, his coaches, and decided it was time to gamble on himself.

Just because he hadn’t started a single game in his college career, didn’t mean he wasn’t ready to enter the NFL.

“I realized,” Van Ness said, “that I had this opportunity in front of me. It’s always been my goal to play at the highest level. I went for it, and I shot for the stars. I’m so happy I made that decision. It’s been an awesome experience so far.”

It got even better Thursday night when the Green Bay Packers drafted Van Ness with the 13th overall pick, opening the Jordan Love era not with another target for their new quarterback, but by addressing their biggest defensive need.

Packers' run of drafting for defense in first round continues

There should be nothing surprising about how the Packers opened this draft, new quarterback or not. Of their past 19 first-round picks, 16 have now been used on a defensive player. “It’s not certainly something that we intentionally try to do,” Gutekunst said, “but at the same time, it is unusual that it’s that many years.”

Van Ness is an upside pick, continuing a first-round trend that has emerged in Gutekunst’s first six drafts. Jaire Alexander, Rashan Gary, Love, Eric Stokes and Quay Walker fit the same mold.

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Van Ness’ measurables are almost identical to Gary's, the last edge rusher the Packers drafted in the first round. At 6-foot-5, 272 pounds, Van Ness ran a 4.58 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine with a 1.64-second split in the first 10 yards. Gary, at 6-4, 277 pounds, ran a 4.58 40 with a 1.63-second split in the first 10 yards before the 2019 draft.

Gutekunst said Van Ness’ film, the way he positioned himself across the defensive line in college, reminds him more of former Packers All-Pro pass rusher Za’Darius Smith. Van Ness’ experience inside means he can drop into a three-point stance, while his athleticism and power-rush arsenal make him a capable edge rusher.

“He’s a very versatile player,” Gutekunst said. “Obviously, that’s very important to us. I think he’s a different player than Z was, but I think he’s going to be able to do a lot of the same things, as far as we used to move Z inside and rush him. I think his best football is ahead of him, but he is a guy who’s going to be able to move inside.”

A year ago, Gutekunst used his first pick on Georgia inside linebacker Quay Walker, a selection that promised to change the schematic foundation of their defense because it allowed the Packers to keep two true linebackers on the field in their nickel. Van Ness’ versatility could have a similar influence once Gary returns from his torn ACL. Before Za’Darius Smith left in free agency last year, the Packers increased their snaps with him, Preston Smith and Gary on the field together.

Lining up three edge rushers on the field is a luxury many NFL defenses can’t create. It means more athleticism, more horsepower, in the pass rush. Preston Smith, Gary and Van Ness could give defensive coordinator Joe Barry the same option.

Lukas Van Ness never started at Iowa but got plenty of snaps

Gutekunst downplayed Van Ness’ lack of college starts. In two seasons, Van Ness had close to 1,000 snaps. Gutekunst said he had 46.5 pressures, including six sacks last season. His 10.5 tackles for loss tied for most on the Hawkeyes defense.

“I just came in as a long, tall, lengthy kid,” Van Ness said, “who had the frame and ability once I got into the right program to grow and develop. Right as I got into the nutritionist, and the nutrition at Iowa, and the weight room, my body very positively reacted and put that weight on at ease. I felt very comfortable putting all the weight on, and even today I’m sitting here at 275, two and a half years later, coming in at 220. My body has developed super well over the past few years.

“I feel super comfortable with my development, and I feel it was crucial to how my career played out at Iowa. Coming in during that COVID year, having a year to focus on the weight room, eating the right things, getting the right amounts of sleep and nutrition and protein, definitely helped my body react and put on that weight in the right way.”

Opening their draft with Van Ness meant passing on a bevy of potential pass catchers with the 13th overall pick, but outside linebacker was a critical need. Their rotation looks much more complete now, even with Gary’s eventual return date uncertain. Behind Preston Smith and Van Ness, the Packers have depth with 2022 fifth-round pick Kingsley Enagbare and 2022 waiver claim Justin Hollins.

Van Ness would have been a starter if he stayed for another season at Iowa. He might still be a starter this fall anyway, just in the NFL instead of the Big Ten. It has been a whirlwind past few years, but the Packers believe Van Ness’ rapid development means his ceiling is high.

“He was one of the premier edge rushers in this class,” Gutekunst said. “For me, we saw him at the combine, and that was very impressive. I was at the Iowa pro day, and it’s no different than a lot of these guys. That helps it all come together. Then the character of the guy really checked out. He’s a culture guy for us. He’s a fit here. He’s a worker. It’s really important to him. I think that always gives you comfort, because whatever talent he has in his body, he’ll work to get there.”

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