Tom Oates: Pressure already on for Packers’ edge rushers

August 8, 2018
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Packers linebacker Vince Biegel hits the sled as other linebackers watch during a recent practice in Green Bay.

GREEN BAY — The one-on-one pass-rushing drills in training camp are fun to watch but not nearly as meaningful as the individual records of the participants might suggest.

And in the 11-on-11 work during practice, the pass rushers can’t ever finish a play because they don’t dare go near the quarterback. That is particularly true when the quarterback is Aaron Rodgers.

“You always have to run by them, especially with No. 12,” Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Blake Martinez said. “Their bubble is like 20 yards.”

Which explains why few Packers players are more ready for the exhibition games to start than the young outside linebackers, who know that sacks and pressures are the best way to impress the coaches and earn regular playing time. Live action against a real opponent is their first opportunity to show if they have that special knack for rushing the passer.

For young edge rushers such as Kyler Fackrell, Vince Biegel, Reggie Gilbert and Chris Odom, that opportunity starts with the Packers’ exhibition opener Thursday night at Lambeau Field. Once they’re turned loose, much will be on the line, both for them and the team.

“The one-on-one drills are scouts’ favorites,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said Tuesday. “You love to see that part of it. It’s a competitive drill. At the same time, there’s plenty of instances where guys have been exceptional in that and then when you get to 11-on-11 football, it doesn’t show up. What we’re trying to do is find the best guys who can play 11-on-11 football. That’s what matters.

“In a lot of drills, everybody knows what’s going on, so there’s not a lot of thinking involved, not a lot of reacting involved. That’s good. It’s good to see the kind of traits guys have. It’s a competitive environment, which is really good to see. But 11-on-11 football is where you have to react and let your physical gifts show through those reactions and instincts and knowing what you’re supposed to do. We’re trying to find the best team, and 11-on-11 football is where we’re going to evaluate that for the most part.”

That is especially true at outside linebacker, where Job 1 in the NFL is to rush off the edge. In this decade alone, undrafted edge rushers such as Frank Zombo, Vic So’oto, Dezman Moses, Andy Mulumba and Jayrone Elliott made their mark — and the final roster — in Green Bay by getting after quarterbacks during exhibition games. Elliott went undrafted out of Toledo but made the team by recording five sacks in the 2014 preseason.

Fackrell, Biegel, Gilbert and Odom were all with the Packers last season, but for one reason or another didn’t make much noise rushing the passer behind Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and since-departed Ahmad Brooks. They’re being counted on this season because two isn’t enough at the position, especially since Matthews is 32 and Perry is injury-prone.

“It’s going to be great to see how much depth we have and have that value show throughout these preseason games,” Martinez said. “Then we can see that, hey, we can give guys a rest on certain plays because we know the guys that are second string and third string can step in and fill in in a great way.”

Of the group, Fackrell is facing the most pressure. A third-round draft pick in 2016, he’s done little in his two seasons. Tall and lean with good speed, he recorded five sacks but mostly got manhandled by NFL offensive tackles. He added five pounds of bulk in the offseason and caused a stir by winning some one-on-ones early in camp, but this is a make-or-break season for him.

Biegel, a fourth-round pick from the University of Wisconsin in 2017, missed most of his rookie offseason after having surgery on both feet and never got untracked despite being active for the final nine regular-season games. After an offseason of intensive work on the practice field and in the weight room — something he couldn’t do last year — Biegel has added five to seven pounds without sacrificing any of his burst.

Gilbert was on the Packers practice squad for two seasons until he was elevated to the roster for the final two games last season. He showed promise then, registering one sack, three quarterback hits and five pressures, and has had a solid camp so far this summer.

Odom was claimed off waivers from Atlanta last September and wasn’t much of a factor in the seven games he played. Still, he had 12.5 sacks as a college senior and is worth a look in his second NFL season.

“I think all those guys are capable,” Gutekunst said. “I think the expectations for those guys are high and our eyes are on it. That will be important for us as a team moving forward.”

Since the Packers didn’t address outside linebacker during the offseason other than using a seventh-round draft pick on small-school prospect Kendall Donnerson, they need at least two of their young players to step up in a big way.

“Obviously, a game-time situation is when all the action is,” Biegel said. “That’s when all the chips are on the table, so that’s when you need to perform the most. I’m excited to get out there and have a live situation against the quarterback.”

NFL exhibition games don’t always mean much, but the next four will be telling for the Packers’ young edge rushers.

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