Rashan Gary has the potential to be a superstar for the Green Bay Packers in 2022. He already looked the part in 2021, and in a lot of ways, he has his old mentor, Za’Darius Smith, to thank for that. The same Za’Darius Smith who now plays for Green Bay’s hated rival, the Minnesota Vikings.
Smith is far from the first Packer who eventually put on a Vikings helmet, joining a list that includes (ridiculously) Brett Favre. He’s already added to the next chapter of the rivalry, though, and it appears as if Gary has taken that personally.
Za’Darius Smith is the newest member of the Minnesota Vikings
Favre finished his career in Minnesota. Greg Jennings won a Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers but then just a few years later took a shot at his old quarterback while wearing purple and gold instead of green and yellow.
It’s not a new thing for Packers to become Vikings. It will certainly seem weird seeing Smith in a Minnesota jersey, though, especially considering how big of a locker room and on-field presence he was for the Packers over the past few seasons.
He missed most of 2021 with a back injury, but the “Smith Bros” pass-rush combo that he formed with Preston Smith will go down in Green Bay lore. That and his 30.5 sacks over two seasons (2019 and 2020).
Sadly, the man they call “Z” ended up being a cap casualty for the Packers this offseason as they desperately worked to create cap room, starting the offseason nearly $50 million over.
Cutting Smith saved Green Bay roughly $15 million dollars, and the Packers’ misfortune turned into the Vikings’ good luck.
After backing out of a deal with the team that drafted him and gave him his start, the Baltimore Ravens, Smith signed with the Vikings on a three-year, $42 million deal.
Rashan Gary was not having any of Za’Darius Smith’s Twitter smoke
As his new deal with Minnesota was announced, Smith took to Twitter to announce his new team in a unique way, simply Tweeting the phrase “Meet at the quarterback.”
While on the surface, that seems like something a pass-rusher would say, it wasn’t a random deal from Smith.
The veteran pass-rusher was paying homage to the Vikings’ dominant defensive lines from the late ’60s and through the ’70s. It was a unit that was so incredible, led by Hall of Famer Alan Page, they were nicknamed the “Purple People Eaters.”
Their motto? You guessed it.
“Meet at the quarterback.”
While that was a historical callback from Smith that undoubtedly got Vikings fans excited, his former teammate, Gary, didn’t seem all that impressed.
He responded to Smith’s Tweet, saying, “I was thinking the same thing.”
As the cherry on top, Gary posted a picture of himself and Smith sacking Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, which is something he’ll be aiming to do much of in his fourth NFL season.
Gary can thank Smith for some of his superstar potential
It was a tweet that had to have been bittersweet for Gary. After all, Smith didn’t demand a trade to Minnesota. In fact, he still had time left on his contract with the Packers when he was cut.
Smith was the odd man out, and much of the calculus for letting him go undoubtedly had to do with the emergence of Gary in 2021.
The Packers and general manager Brian Gutekunst drafted Gary with the 12th overall pick in the 2019 draft. It was a controversial selection because it was the highest pick the Packers have had in years in the first round. The last time they had a pick that was considered “high” was in 2009 when they drafted B.J. Raji No. 9 overall out of Boston College.
Gary was controversial at that spot because the Packers drafted him as a stand-up outside linebacker who they projected as a pass-rush specialist. This was despite the fact that the University of Michigan used him as a run-stopping defensive end, and he did not have a ton of sack production in his few years in Ann Arbor.
He was a project, and the Packers were taking a chance on him because they had just signed Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith that offseason, so they had enough depth at outside linebacker to be patient.
Gary came in with just raw athleticism, and the “Smith Bros” were very open about being his mentor and teaching him the ropes.
Gary was a rotational pass-rusher in years one and two and totaled just seven combined sacks. He showed promise and his elite athleticism and explosion were evident, but he took some time to develop and put it all together, as the Packers likely expected.
Ironically, it was Za’Darius Smith’s back injury that gave the Packers the opportunity to put their full faith in Gary in 2021, and he responded with 9.5 sacks en route to becoming one of the most dominant pass-rushers in football.
No, he wasn’t close to T.J. Watt’s 22.5 sacks, but he was at or near the quarterback consistently. In fact, he noticed the seventh most quarterback hits in the entire league with 28. Players like Maxx Crosby, Micah Parsons, and Jonathan Allen weren’t far ahead of him with 30.
Gary has always had the raw talent and athleticism to be one of the best pass-rushers in the league, and he finally flashed that ability in 2021. It would seem, considering his progression, that he’ll take even another step forward in 2022.
That has to be concerning for quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins. Though the next time Gary hits him, he’ll have to take his frustration out of Smith because he helped the budding superstar pass-rusher get to this point.