Green Bay Packers

Midweek Musings: Rashan Gary’s rise serves as cautionary tale about rookie labels

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Before ever playing a snap for the Green Bay Packers, Rashan Gary was labeled a bust.

The 12th overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft, Gary was one of that spring’s most controversial prospects.

The book on Gary was that of an uber-talented athlete whose traits didn’t match his production. In his scouting report for Bleacher Report, Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout on Twitter) wrote this:

“Rashan Gary is a traits-based prospect who looks the part but hasn’t played up to it. He needs to prove himself in the NFL with production instead of being a ‘what if’ player. Gary will wow scouts with his athleticism and potential, but those are scary words. While he has a very high ceiling, Gary is an all-traits, no-production type of prospect that often busts.”

It was an understandable position. Despite his freak athleticism and talent, Gary finished his three-year career at Michigan with only 9 1/2 sacks.

First-round picks are also expected to be immediate contributors, but that was never going to be the case with Gary. Only a month prior, the Packers spent a hefty sum recruiting Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith to bolster the defense.

Gary was limited to 24% of the defensive snaps as a rookie.

Criticism of the Packers’ selection only worsened when considering Brian Burns, who went a few picks later to Carolina and was viewed as the “safer” player, was a productive player for the Panthers from the get-go.

Four seasons later, no one is questioning the Packers’ decision.

Through four games, Gary has arguably been Green Bay’s best player. His five sacks are tied for third in the NFL, only one behind the league-leader Nick Bosa, and he’s one of only four players to record at least one sack in every game so far this season.

Even the oddsmakers have taken notice. Following his performance on Sunday, Gary became one of the betting favorites for Defensive Player of the Year.

His rise should serve as a cautionary tale for those blasting another Packers project: middle linebacker Quay Walker.

Like Gary, the Packers’ selection of Walker at 22nd overall — one of two picks acquired in the Davante Adams trade — was eyebrow-raising. Despite playing for a high-profile program at Georgia, Walker was not considered a slam dunk prospect even while possessing intriguing traits.

His first four NFL games have been up and down.

He, along with partner De’Vondre Campbell, have struggled when teams attack the Packers with the run. Walker’s PFF grades, whatever they’re worth, have been among the worst on the defense the last two weeks (his grade was one of the best Week 2 vs. Chicago).

It’s very early, but Walker’s performance is already being questioned by those trying to confirm prior opinions about his potential.

The above tweet is not that dissimilar from the aforementioned conversations about Gary. “The Packers should’ve drafted [insert name here] instead!”

To be clear, Gary and Walker are not an apples-to-apples comparison.

Gary was viewed as a developmental prospect and was treated as such. It wasn’t until 2021, partly due to Za’Darius Smith’s absence, that Gary became a full-time player.

Walker has not been afforded such time to learn. It’s only four games, but he’s played 77% of the defensive snaps so far.

He was also a 22nd overall pick — not 12th like Gary — on a defense not lacking for talent. While that’s a difference of only 10 selections, one certainly comes with higher expectations.

Perception is where the similarities lie.

Like Gary, Walker has undeniable athletic traits. But questions were asked during the draft process about his lack of playmaking on a college defense full of studs.

His play so far hasn’t been all bad. He forced a fumble Week 3 vs. Tampa Bay that likely kept points off the board, and he’s displayed sideline-to-sideline speed rarely seen among recent Packers linebackers.

The Packers have always bet on traits over college production, and have been mightily successful in doing so.

In that respect, Gary was a major success story. With more time, Walker can be too.

 

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