How will Packers Divide Playing Time Between Rashan Gary & Preston Smith

How will the Green Bay Packers split snaps this season between an ascending Rashan Gary and Preston Smith, who is coming off a down 2020 season?

What was essentially considered a forgone conclusion this summer by many was that the Green Bay Packers were going to cut Preston Smith. His production compared to 2019 fell off a cliff — we will get to that shortly — and the cap-conscious Packers who desperately needed to create cap space could have saved $8 million by moving on from him.

But as we all know, that isn’t how things played out. Instead, Smith took a pay cut which still helped create that needed cap space, and he will be around for the 2021 season. Despite his rocky 2020 season, this was good news. The Packer edge rusher position is more daunting with Smith than without.

However, one big question that arises with Smith’s return is playing time—specifically between him and Rashan Gary.

In 2019 this wasn’t an issue. Smith was playing at a very high level behind 12 sacks and 62 pressures, plus it was quite clear that the Packers' plan for Gary was to bring him along slowly. But last season, that playing time imbalance became more evident as Smith struggled and Gary ascended.

According to PFF, Gary finished the 2020 season (including the playoffs) with nine sacks and 46 total pressures, both of which were the second-most on the team behind only Za’Darius Smith. Gary would also finish the year ranked 15th out of 121 eligible edge rushers in PFF’s pass-rush productivity metric, which measures how efficiently a pass-rusher gets after the quarterback on a per snap basis.

To compare, Smith finished the season with five sacks and 29 pressures. What makes the difference in production between Smith and Gary even more staggering is the playing time. Smith was on the field for 79 percent of Green Bay’s defensive snaps, or 814 total snaps, while Gary was on the field for only 44 percent of those snaps, or 456 plays.

This lack of efficiency from Smith is why he ranked 108th in pass-rush productivity while Gary ranked 15th, as already mentioned.

Yet even with the discrepancy in production, we didn’t see more snaps for Gary and less for Smith, but rather the respective playing time for each player remained relatively the same over the course of the season. From Weeks 7 through 10 (I chose this span because Gary missed a few weeks early on), Gary averaged 31.7 snaps per game. From Week 16 through the NFC Championship Game, his snap average was 33.5 per game. Smith, during those same spans, averaged 44.3 snaps and 48.7 snaps. Both saw an uptick in snaps, but Gary didn’t gain any share of Smith’s playing time.

So that begs the question, what can we expect in 2021?

Obviously, the hope is that Smith regains some of that 2019 form — although I wouldn’t expect the same production, that was a career year for him — and if he does improve from last year, Green Bay will be in a terrific spot with both of The Smiths and Gary playing well. But unlike Smith, Gary is an ascending player who is entering a crucial third season and is at a tipping point—and if anything, last year’s performance proved that he is worthy of more snaps. Not the same amount, and certainly not fewer, but more. Quite a few more, actually.

The big unknown in all of this how Joe Barry plans to exactly utilize the edge rushers and how he plans to divide up playing time. We are still going to see plenty of snaps where all three edge rushers are on the field, Za’Darius will, of course, see a bulk of the snaps, but again we come back to Preston, Gary, and that second edge rusher role.

Unless something drastic from training camp dictates otherwise, the two should see a similar amount of snaps early on, and truthfully, the playing time should lean in Gary’s favor. Not only because of last year, but he is the younger, surging player with a higher ceiling who we know will be a part of this team beyond 2021. As they say, he’s the future.

From there, as the season progresses, performance can dictate the rest—we will hopefully see more willingness to adjust on the fly in that regard and less rigidity. To put it simply, based on what we saw in 2020, there’s zero reason that Smith should have almost twice as many snaps as Gary.

Circling back to what I said initially, this is a good problem to have. The Green Bay Packers have three legitimate edge rushers on this team, but performance and the level of play should determine the amount of playing time. And for a player like Rashan Gary, who is on the verge of breaking out in a big way, he’s proven that he deserves every opportunity to do so.

While it hasn’t been talked about a ton, how the snaps are divided between Gary and Smith will certainly be something to watch in camp and as the season unfolds early on.

---------------------

Born and raised in Green Bay, WI and I still call it home. After my family, watching the Packers, sharing my opinions on the team through my writing and interacting with other fans is my greatest passion. You can find me on Twitter at @Paul_Bretl. 
 

NFL Categories: 
7 points

Comments (30)

Fan-Friendly This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.
Savage57's picture

June 04, 2021 at 06:19 am

It'll be a rotation with the player with the highest productivity the winner. Both Smith and Gary have something to prove. Good for the Packers, bad for opposing QB's.

At least I hope it's that simple, but the soulless wench Injury may have other plans.

8 points
8
0
nostradanus's picture

June 04, 2021 at 06:37 am

It is a very good problem to have, I imagine all three will play about the same amount (giving Z a bit of a break) this should keep all three a bit fresher come playoff time.

Also between Scott-Rambo-Garvin-Galia two of these guys need to step forward, make the 2nd year leap and claim the 4-5 spots.

My bet is Garvin & Scott

11 points
11
0
Turophile's picture

June 04, 2021 at 07:26 am

Yeah, the emphasis is as much about Zadarius playing less snaps, as Gary playing more. The fresher players are the more effort they can give per-snap (and its especially wearing on Zadarius given that he plays numerous snaps at the DE/DT spot). I'm expecting a lot from Gary, but he hasn't disappointed so far.

3 points
3
0
greengold's picture

June 04, 2021 at 08:14 am

I like this a lot, nostradanus, and I agree that Garvin and Scott tumble into the 4 and 5 spots. We've got some really good players there.

Za'Darius Smith took a lot of snaps on the DL. He always does. I expect that to continue, opening up opportunities for the other players mentioned from the edge.

The Packers are going to be able to spread the snaps out a bit more this season, which as others mentioned, will help come playoff time. The front 7 is going to be a different animal this year, having TJ Slaton and what we hope to be a healthier, more improved Kingsley Keke providing more push up the middle. Those two will also allow for a lightening of Kenny Clark's 70+ snaps per game totals from years past. All of these younger players should help us get to the playoffs in good order, healthy, ready to rumble.

5 points
5
0
nostradanus's picture

June 04, 2021 at 09:46 am

Right on GG

2 points
2
0
Coldworld's picture

June 04, 2021 at 08:13 am

We really need one to develop in the Fackrell cover role. We don’t want a repeat of the Burks experiment.

4 points
4
0
greengold's picture

June 04, 2021 at 08:18 am

I think Delontae Scott is going to be that guy. Solid player from SMU. Mike Smith was just raving about him the other day.

2 points
2
0
Coldworld's picture

June 04, 2021 at 05:36 pm

As long as someone does I’m happy. I’d thought maybe Tipa, if he’s out on muscle. He’s got speed.

1 points
1
0
nostradanus's picture

June 04, 2021 at 09:47 am

They are probably going to try the Safety Scott in that role, Amos too.

1 points
1
0
jannes bjornson's picture

June 04, 2021 at 06:36 pm

Different Defense.

1 points
1
0
jeremyjjbrown's picture

June 04, 2021 at 07:15 am

I wonder if all of them are going to be on the field more often. Barry was brought in for a specific scheme that uses a five man front a lot. I wouldn't be surprised if the interior was Gary, Clark and Keke on early downs.

7 points
7
0
jannes bjornson's picture

June 04, 2021 at 11:34 am

You don't draft a guy with a high one pick to share snaps. I thought they would move P Smith, but he took the pay cut to hang around. Move Z and Gary up and down and all around on 95% of the snaps. Both can put in time with their hand on the ground. Still missing a bonafide five tech.

1 points
1
0
Stroh's picture

June 04, 2021 at 08:44 pm

Its more of a bonafide 3 tech that is the pass rusher. The 5 tech is typically more of a run stuffing DE, in the Johnnie Jolly mold. Pretty much anyone can take 5 tech since its not really considered a pass rushing role. But the 3 tech, a la Aaron Donald is a different beast. Maybe that can be Keke, but I'm not sold. Z has been rushing inside like a 3 tech regularly for the Packers and Ravens. But Gary has the size, strength and ability to be a very effective interior pass rusher like Z is so adept at. Its also the best way to get the top 4 pass rushers on the field together on most pass rushing downs, while allowing Barry to continue to use the 5 man Defensive front the Rams favored.

Its all speculation at his point but if you want to play the 5 man front and keep your top pass rushers in the game, Gary or Z will have to log their share of snaps in the 3tech spot.

3 points
3
0
NickPerry's picture

June 04, 2021 at 07:28 am

nostradanus and I had the same thought... I also think Gary will cut into Z. Smith's time on the field a bit, at least a little. Z wasn't as good as he was in 2019 either though he was still pretty damn good. Personally I think giving Z a break a few more plays a game will actually help him. Nothing wrong with keeping him a bit fresher for the 4th quarter.

Preston came into camp this year leaner which is exactly what I was hoping for. I hope he makes ALL those incentives because that means he's knocking the crap out of Curt Cousins, Jared Goff, and Justin Fields. Personally I don't think Cousins can EVER get hit enough. God I hate that dude. He looks like a rat!

I think Z. Smith and especially Gary are going to really thrive in Joe Berry's system. I think we'll see Gary lined up everywhere just like ZaDarius has been used the last 2 years. Can't wait for the times where the Packers bring both the Smiths, Gary, Kenny Clark, and Keke Kingsley all at once. That's going to be a hell of a pass rush.

With the depth the Packers have with pass rushers and the makings of an elite secondary, this defense is going to start winning a lot more games for the Packers which will be important with or without Diva Boy.

1 points
4
3
Bearmeat's picture

June 04, 2021 at 07:45 am

I think the cousins is a good guy. A bit of a doofus. But not a bad quarterback by any stretch. Period. He’s just a overpaid quarterback. And that’s not his fault that is the Vikings and Redskins fault. He’s just not a natural born a whole like most quarterbacks who are all pros.

0 points
2
2
Thegreatreynoldo's picture

June 04, 2021 at 12:06 pm

Right. Cousins earned his overpaid status by having to play on multiple franchise tags to become a UFA as a pretty good QB. He didn't get the security of the big contract with a big signing bonus. He took a risk and it paid off handsomely for him - that's something I can respect. You did allude to that part of the equation.

-1 points
0
1
greengold's picture

June 04, 2021 at 08:26 am

Your last point here, NickPerry, is really key.

Adding Eric Stokes and Shemar Jean-Charles to this secondary, along with some of these unknowns like Uphoff, Gaines & Wilborn, plus Chandon Sullivan possibly working his way out of his sophomore slump, could go a long way towards coverage sacks.

I think the amount of pressure the Packers will be able to apply up front is going to be intense. A lot of people wanted us to take Osa Odighizuwa in this last draft. Well, the Packers have a player who is very similar in body type and motor they brought in UDFA last year, Willington Previlon. He's 2" taller too, with an 84" wingspan? Insane. He's had a full year of development.

The big cheese is going to be seeing what LaFleur & Barry have cooked up with how they run this D. Can't wait.

2 points
3
1
nostradanus's picture

June 04, 2021 at 09:48 am

Haha yep, hopefully Diva Boy shows up. Hint....he will,,,,

1 points
1
0
Rudedawg67's picture

June 04, 2021 at 07:27 am

In my eyes Gary is obviously the better player and the playing time should at least be flip-flopped from what it was last year. I think Gary given the playing time will become just as productive as Z Smith.

2 points
3
1
jannes bjornson's picture

June 04, 2021 at 06:38 pm

If the team bogs down in the event Rodgers doesn't decide to show, one or both of the Smiths could be moved by the trade deadline.

1 points
1
0
croatpackfan's picture

June 04, 2021 at 08:05 am

I believe that the number of snaps will be divided between Smiths & Gary more or less equally...

2 points
2
0
dobber's picture

June 04, 2021 at 08:57 am

I agree: it seems that Barry will--if he holds to form on the Fangio/Staley model--need more big bodies on the field, and the best ones are Clark + the OLBs. Certainly Z and Gary can (and do) play with their hand on the ground.

Given his 2022 cap hit and the emergence of Gary, I think it's a given that Preston Smith won't be a Packer past this season...hell, many of us were surprised he's still around. That said, there's likely a balance that needs to be struck, roster-wise, with developmental players and the guys who will log most of the game day snaps.

3 points
3
0
greengold's picture

June 04, 2021 at 09:50 pm

Yes. I can’t help but think we somehow add 1 NT and 1 DE prior to Game 1. Somehow.

1 points
1
0
PeteK's picture

June 04, 2021 at 09:55 am

One thing we know for sure, Gary will be in on running plays because of his ability to defeat blocks. At the least ,if we get 20 solid snaps from Slaton and Stokes becomes a solid starter , it could propel this D into top 5 category. We were #9 in total yards , but 13th in rushing and pts allowed. Martin and Barnes should improve the rushing defense after a year two improvement.

1 points
2
1
MajWhiplash's picture

June 04, 2021 at 11:47 am

Eeenie, meanie, minee, moe.................

0 points
1
1
Thegreatreynoldo's picture

June 04, 2021 at 12:32 pm

Gary did improve in the last half to last third of the season - I remember writing in a snap count article that he was blossoming right before our very eyes - but during the first half of the season he was somewhat pedestrian. The thing is, Preston also improved later in the season, perhaps as he lost some of that gut.

I suspect things during the 2021 season will look a lot like they did during last year's playoff games. Here are those stats:

SNAPS:
Gary: 42 snaps (65%) and 33 snaps (62%) vs. LAR and TB. 75 snaps.
Smith: 50 snaps (77%) and 41 snaps (77%) v. LAR and TB. 91 snaps.

PRODUCTION:

Gary: 3 QB hits, 1.5 Sacks, 4 Pressures, 1 Knockdown, 1 Hurry 8 blitzes
Pres: 2 QB hits, 0 sacks, 3 pressures, 2 knockdowns, 1 hurry, 7 blitzes.

No question Gary was more efficient, and the sacks matter as well. But this is much closer when both are playing well than it was over the course of the entire season.

In two playoff games, Preston Smith was targeted once and did not allow a completion. For the season it was 18 times with 13 recs. Gary was not targeted during the playoffs, which does not tell me whether he dropped into coverage at all. I'd guess no, but IDK. Also, all of Gary's stats came vs. LAR. 6 blitzes against TB produced no pressures. Preston's 5 blitzes against TB produced a knockdown and a pressure. IDK how much that means, just something I noticed. Strange, Z didn't do a ton either. 1 sack, 1 knockdown, 2 pressures in two games and 12 blitzes, with stats against both teams.

My prediction: Preston continues to play 75% of the snaps. Gary moves from 44% to 65% or more. Barry finds a way to get Z, P, and Gary on the field together a lot more.

3 points
4
1
greengold's picture

June 04, 2021 at 09:47 pm

Stellar stuff, TGR. I love breakdowns like that. This is really well considered.

I think Preston Smith is in for a big year too, along with Gary, who has handled his development & experiences after being the #12 overall pick 3 drafts ago with great professionalism.

I want all the good stuff for Rashan Gary this year.

2 points
2
0
Stroh's picture

June 06, 2021 at 05:16 pm

I consider it essential that Gary is a full time starter. He's ready and must play starter minutes. Getting all 3 on the field simultaneously would be ideal, particularly in pass rush. I wonder how Gary could play like a 3 tech and if it would stunt his growth.

0 points
0
0
Ryan3468's picture

June 04, 2021 at 12:48 pm

When will the edge rushers in Green Bay realize there also is a run game? Pressuring the quarterback is a must, but some teams can pound the rock.

2 points
2
0
PhantomII's picture

June 04, 2021 at 09:19 pm

There are going to be a lot less snaps to go around, with a lot more 3 and outs. Improvements all around including the secondary will choke the rivals offense and get the ball back to our offense. Our Defense gets very respectable this year folks. Get off your sofa Rodgers. For all the whining about WR's, you are going to get a lot more plays on offense to do what you do if you want to win a super bowl with your friends this year. Either way, we are a tough out.

4 points
4
0