Packers’ defense gets speed at edge, safety

By Chris Havel
Special to Event USA
Green Bay gets DE Gary at 12, then trades up for safety Savage at 21
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Well, what do you think?

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It’s the most asked question in the wake of any NFL Draft, especially when Green Bay holds two first-round picks.
My three-word response: I like it.
It would be easy to criticize the Packers and GM Brian Gutekunst for not drafting an offensive lineman when that position seemed abundant at No. 12.
Gutekunst also could be second-guessed for not selecting a tight end or an inside linebacker.
To that I’ve got two answers. The first is long, the second short:
** A) The Packers added a highly talented speed-power edge rusher in Michigan’s Rashan Gary at 12, and they got the fourth-fastest defensive back in the draft with the 21st pick by trading up from 30 to get Maryland safety Darnell Savage, Jr.
Whoever plays inside linebacker next to Blake Martinez is going to be better because of Gary and Savage. It’s the same with the cornerbacks.
Some wanted Mississippi State edge rusher Montez Sweat – myself included – but instead they got a talented player (Gary) who doesn’t have issues regarding a possible heart ailment.
I wanted Sweat at 12 mostly because I doubted Gary would be there. When the Lions chose tight end T.J. Hockenson at No. 8 that sealed the deal on Gary-to-Green Bay.
When the Packers traded up from 30 to 21 with Seattle to draft Savage it was like a thunderbolt. Savage’s 4.3 40-speed and play-making ability is going to be exciting for Packers fans.
Nick Collins is the closest to Savage I can think of. Collins was a bit bigger; Savage a touch faster.
** B) The draft isn’t over yet.
The Packers still own the 44th pick (second round) and 75th pick (third round) going into tonight’s Day 2.
They still could land a tight end, slot receiver, inside linebacker or an offensive lineman.
With the 44th pick, the Packers would be fortunate to land any of these three players: Alabama inside linebacker Mack Wilson, Florida offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor or Mississippi receiver A.J. Brown (my favorite player still on the board).
Wilson would give Martinez a terrific running mate.
Taylor would help solidify the right tackle position.
Brown would give the Packers’ offense a serious jolt of talent in the passing game.
If all three are off the board, I’m taking a long, hard look at either of two tight ends: Alabama’s Irv Smith, Jr., and Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger.
Now, let’s take a closer look at Gary and Savage.
** Rashan Gary, defensive end, Michigan
Gary, 6-4, 277, was clocked at 4.58 in the 40-yard dash. That’s incredibly fast for a man of his size. He also answered questions about a reported torn labrum by benching 225 pounds 26 times. He also flashed a 38-inch vertical leap.
The big question with Gary: Why not more production in college? He had 3 ½ sacks last year as a junior.
Packers college scout Joe Hueber had a ready explanation.
“He commanded a lot of attention at Michigan, double-teams, triple-teams, taking on the tight end,” Hueber told reporters. “You saw it in some of his teammates. They got freed up and they were able to get production. It’s not like he wasn’t impacting the game. You watch him – he was all over the place, getting off blocks, and getting pressure, too.”
Gary was first-team all-Big Ten each of the past two seasons. He played in 35 games with 22 starts and is a high-energy athlete.
What’s the best part of his game?
“Just the energy I bring to the field,” Gary said. “I’m fun. I like to compete. And I love to get after it. Every play I’m ready to bring it.”
Gary got emotional when the Packers drafted him.
“It comes from my love of the game,” he said. “To have an organization like the Green Bay Packers to believe in you – and to have them call my name – means a lot. I can’t wait to start playing there with them.”
** Darnell Savage, Jr., safety, Maryland
The Packers played this one cool.
Of the 29 reported players that had pre-draft visits with Green Bay, none was Darnell Savage, Jr. The Packers had him on their radar for a long time and they coveted enough to trade their 30th pick, plus the 114th and 118th picks (fourth round) to Seattle to move up and select Savage.
The 5-foot-11, 198-pound safety ran a blistering 4.36 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. He used that speed to make a ton of plays in Maryland’s secondary. He has decent hands and accounted for seven interceptions the past two seasons.
Savage believes his versatility and ball skills set him apart.
“I feel like I’m extremely versatile,” he said. “I really bring that physical presence to the field and to the game. I’m fast. I like to hit. I like to be around the ball. I like to make plays.
“I just love to play the game of football. The game of football is fun to me. Any time I’m out there playing, I’m going to give it my all and just enjoy it.”
Savage began his college career as a cornerback, but like so many top athletes on a college defense, he was moved to safety to maximize his skills.
His height may be seen as a detriment. Savage doesn’t buy it.
“I’ve always been an extremely confident person,” he said. “I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder.”
Savage will be teamed with free-agent acquisition Adrian Amos to form the Packers’ new safety tandem. In terms of ability (Savage) and experience (Amos) it’s a unit with great potential.
Gutekunst called Savage “an absolute difference-maker.”
“He’s obviously a premier athlete,” Gutekunst said. “He’s been an impact player for Maryland for a number of years. He’s able to close the gap, from centerfield to the hash. He’s an aggressive, physical player who can take the ball away. He fits what we’re trying to do on the back end.”
I like Gary. I like Savage.
The defense is going to be vastly improved from its 18th ranking. A speedy inside linebacker with cover skills (‘Bama’s Wilson) might be too much to ask.
I’ll be happy with A.J. Brown and a tight end.