Rashan Gary, Darnell Savage start to make Packers' 2019 draft look better

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- If all you saw of the Green Bay Packers was Week 10 against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Sunday against the Chicago Bears, the only assessment that could be made is this: General manager Brian Gutekunst hit home runs with his pair of 2019 first-round draft picks, Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage.

Gary, the 12th pick in the draft, bull-rushed his way into a sack of Jaguars quarterback Jake Luton in the final minutes to preserve a 24-20 win. A game-saving play.

Savage, taken nine spots later, made two rangy interceptions on deep balls to thwart any threat the Bears had of making it a competitive game.

More discerning observers would say that those games only suggest that the pair is finally starting to reach their potential.

Better now than never, though, for a Packers' defense that will need more of that down the stretch to complement Aaron Rodgers and his MVP-type season.

Gary's increased production earned him a spot in the starting lineup on Sunday ahead of the slumping Preston Smith, although their snap counts were nearly identical. He's had six quarterback pressures combined in the past three games, according to ESPN Stats & Information, after recording only nine in the first seven (he was inactive for Week 4 because of an ankle injury).

"Since the day he walked in the building, you knew there was something special," Packers outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said. "I saw it in training camp and really the first two games of the season and then he had the hiccup with the ankle that set him back two or three weeks. Just picking up the defense and now that's natural to him, and then the techniques of an outside linebacker."

Gary already has more than doubled his pressure total from last season (six) and has jumped from 9.1% to 13.0% in ESPN's Pass Rush Win Rate.

"We all know he's explosive, he's fast, loves football, is very physical," Smith said. "Right now, he's doing a great job with the run, he's affecting the quarterback. He's playing really good football right now. The game's slowing down for him. Couldn't be more proud of him. The more we get going, the more reps he's going to get and he deserves more reps. Just playing good football."

Savage battled an injury of his own. He missed Week 7 against the Houston Texans because of a quad injury and even upon his return, it appeared to impact him in space. Finally healthy, he showed the speed and coverage range the Packers loved about him coming out on his first interception against the Bears. Savage played the ball like a receiver and picked off a deep ball in the end zone in the second quarter of a 13-3 game. His third-quarter interception came when Mitchell Trubisky threw deep into triple coverage.

"I talked to him about, you know what, be consistent, be steady and you're going to get your chances. And the last couple of weeks he's made some of those splash plays," Packers secondary coach Jerry Gray said. "He's helped out in the run game, he's had two or three tackles for loss, and you would think, 'How can a safety do that?' He's reading his keys faster, he's understanding what he's supposed to do and now he's letting the plays come to him other than trying to make a play.

"That's what you expect. He's young. He's athletic. He can make plays on the ball. He just hasn't had a lot of chances. I think, you know what, the more we keep playing, the more chances he gets. The next thing you know, I think he'll probably end up with three or four interceptions this year."

Gray's comments came days before Savage's two-interception game. Now, perhaps three or four interceptions might be on the low end.

"I think it was more so him saying to that point where I do put so much pressure on myself that I was getting to a point where it's like, ‘When's my play going to come?'" Savage said after Sunday's game. "I feel like I've really settled in and just trusted the process and trusted myself and just going out there and trusting everything that I've prepared for in the offseason and just everything. I'm going to keep doing that and hopefully we keep getting the same results."

To date, the star of Gutekunst's 2019 class has been second-round pick Elgton Jenkins. An All-Rookie selection at left guard, Jenkins has played every spot on the offensive line this season except right guard and likely will hold down the center spot until Corey Linsley returns from the knee injury that knocked him out against the Bears.

But here come Gary and Savage, and all of sudden the class looks a little stronger at the top.