Although it’s important to note that the pads aren’t on yet, Green Bay Packers first-round pick Lukas Van Ness has looked the part through team OTAs.
Van Ness has been running with the second-team defense up to this point behind Preston Smith, Justin Hollins, and JJ Enagbare. During Wednesday’s practice which was open to the media, Van Ness was a constant in the backfield. He’s a power rusher, using his strength to his advantage as he looks to go from point A directly to point B.
There were back-to-back snaps on Wednesday where he was able to get into the backfield when going up against Yosh Nijman. The first came as he used that strength of his and popped Nijman in the chest, creating separation, then cut inside towards the quarterback. Another happened when he had Nijman on skates as he drove him into the backfield. We saw a similar play from Van Ness last week going up against Caleb Jones.
However, Van Ness’ most impressive play came on play-action with Sean Clifford in shotgun and the running back to his left. Van Ness was able to create separation between him and the tackle, but instead of going directly to the quarterback, he set the edge and identified if the running back had the ball before then pursuing Clifford for what would have been a sack.
As a group, the Green Bay edge rushers have struggled against the run, specifically containing the ball carriers inside, so seeing Van Ness go through the process of doing that while still ending up with a likely sack was impressive for a young player. As Packers run game coordinator Jerry Montgomery said recently, improved run defense does not only fall on the interior defensive line, but all 11 defenders have to be better.
“He’s going to be great for us,” said Kenny Clark about Van Ness. “He’s going to be versatile, play a lot of different spots. He’s big and strong, so I think he can play inside, playing the 5 (tech), playing the 3 (tech) inside, and pass rush. He’s still agile enough to go out and play on the edge. Versatile guy, big and strong, he’s fast on the ball, and he has a good long-arm from what I’ve seen training with him.”
Van Ness and Za’Darius Smith are different players, but following the draft, Brian Gutekunst acknowledged that they would use Van Ness similarly, meaning that he will see snaps as an inside pass rusher on obvious passing downs, along with taking snaps as a traditional edge rusher. Van Ness is a former interior defender at Iowa with over 400 college snaps inside.
At least early on this season, I expect that we see Van Ness utilized more as a pass rusher than someone tasked with defending the run on early downs or short-yardage situations. With rookies specifically, Green Bay wants them to become good and comfortable in a specific role before adding more responsibilities to their plates, something several position coaches have discussed this offseason with so many rookies on the roster.
That power that Van Ness possesses is his bread and butter as a pass rusher. However, an area of growth for him will have to come with developing a secondary move. At the NFL level, he simply can’t run through everyone, and when stonewalled, he needs to have a countermove ready to go. Having a variety of pass-rush moves will also help keep offensive tackles off-balance.
“It takes time to establish to be a pass rusher in this league,” said pass rush coordinator Jason Rebrovich recently. “As you guys have seen in college right now, it’s a lot more QB movement, it’s just different. When that happens, their progression to come to this league, it takes time to understand how to set up a tackle, how do I go through my pass rush in my progression. So there is a learning curve.
“But hopefully, each player is different. Every guy is going to be a different player, and how we approach it. So we will just keep working with the young man, and the guy’s embraced it so far and today working in individual it’s all those fine-tuning things. It’s understanding a foot placement, it matters. You don’t just run around a block. There are some intricacies to understand how to pass rush and not only that, you have to pass rush together.”
It’s quite possible that Rashan Gary will begin the season on the PUP list as he works his way back from the ACL injury. If that is the case, I would still expect that either Enagbare or Hollins is starting next to Smith to begin the season, with Van Ness working in as a rotational player, still seeing a fair amount of playing time. We saw the Packers take a slower approach with Gary during his rookie season, but under Matt LaFleur, this is something that the Packers have done at a variety of positions. Early on in the season, anyways, Green Bay has preferred experience over upside and potential.
Once the pads come on later this summer, the intensity and speed kicks up a few notches. But given what I’ve seen from Van Ness up to this point in OTAs, he has looked the part as a disruptor up front, and it’s easy to see why he’s been nicknamed ‘Hercules.’