GREEN BAY — Mike McCarthy wasn’t serious about the position move, but he was definitely serious about how impressed he has been about the progress outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert has continued to make.
“I’ll tell you what, Reggie Gilbert looks great,” the Green Bay Packers coach gushed as the team’s rookie orientation camp — a camp which NFL rules allow players such as Gilbert to participate in because of their limited regular-season exposure – wrapped up last weekend. “I was kidding with him, I said if he keeps running around the way he’s doing in pass coverage I’m going to move him to tight end.
“It’s incredible what he’s done in his time here.”
The Packers’ thin tight end ranks notwithstanding, McCarthy not only isn’t moving the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Gilbert, he and the coaching staff are clearly expecting Gilbert to be a key part of the team’s edge-rushing rotation.
Despite unproven depth behind starting outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry — and the two veterans’ history of battling injuries — the Packers eschewed signing any edge rushers in free agency and didn’t spend any of their high draft picks on the position, either.
The only draft choice at outside linebacker was seventh-rounder Kendall Donnerson from Southeast Missouri State, which would seem to confirm what general manager Brian Gutekunst has said for most of the offseason — that the Packers like their young guys (Gilbert, ex-University of Wisconsin standout Vince Biegel and third-year man Kyler Fackrell) enough to believe they deserve an opportunity.
“I feel like that means they think highly for us in the room. So that’s a good thing. But I’m just focused on (the fact) that I have a good opportunity, I’m in a good position right now,” said Gilbert, 25. “(But) we definitely have to hold up our end of the bargain.”
Told of McCarthy’s tight-end joke and rave review of his development, Gilbert chuckled. “It’s definitely a good thing anytime the Head Man has something good to say about you.”
Gilbert has certainly waited long enough to hear that talk.
Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Arizona after the 2016 draft, he spent all of that year and most of last season on the practice squad as he transitioned from a hand-down defensive end for the Wlidcats to a stand-up linebacker in Green Bay.
“I was just trying to grind every day. Even though I was on the practice squad, I just came to work every day, trying to get better, and just kept telling myself that no matter how I was feeling that day, I have to just trust the process and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Gilbert said.
“I mean, it was tough. I couldn’t lie to you. But I felt taking a more positive approach (was important). Not looking at it as pouting or you’re not playing right now, but I just took it as a growing experience.”
His patience was rewarded late last year, when he was called up to the 53-man roster for the final two games of the season. Although he got some work with the regular defense – instead of the scout team – during the week leading up to the Packers’ Dec. 23 game against Minnesota, Gilbert didn’t get the official word he was moving up until McCarthy pulled him aside after a team meeting the day before the game.
“He told me I was going to be on the 46(-man game-day active roster), so I knew I was going to play,” Gilbert said. “I just didn’t know the extent I was going to play.”
Playing 46 of a possible 65 snaps against the Vikings and 40 of 59 snaps at Detroit in the season finale, Gilbert registered four quarterback pressures and three quarterback hits on the Vikings’ Case Keenum and earned his first NFL sack against the Lions’ Matthew Stafford.
“You talk about a guy that has done everything and has taken advantage of every resource that’s been available to him. I mean, in my mind he’s already taken the second-year jump,” McCarthy continued. “He’s a great example for these young players. He’s a great example for the (undrafted) free agents.”
Now, Gilbert is focused on leveraging the success he had late in the year into an even bigger role in new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense. He’ll have another chance to show off his progress during organized team activity practices later this month and set himself up for a strong training camp this summer.
“I’m just trying to invest in his playbook and get ready to get it done,” Gilbert said. “I definitely think I’ve come so far, come such a long way as a player, and as a pro. I feel like I’ve definitely matured, just as far as my mindset — attacking. Going into OTAs, going into camp, my focus is going to be to try to get better every day, and try to prove I can contribute to this team.
“Last year definitely gave me a lot of confidence. It’s one thing to see the types of things you’re doing in practice — and we’ve got some good guys here, so it’s definitely competitive at practice — but to do it in the game, obviously the game’s a lot different. It was definitely good to get that experience, and I feel like both the games I played last year, I definitely came away with some things that I think will make me a better player.”
Gutekunst knew he’d have some spots to fill on the personnel staff after the draft, as he wasn’t able to immediately replace Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsimth after the two left for Cleveland after former GM Ted Thompson transitioned to an advisory role in January.
Now he’ll have another opening to fill after
College scout Alonzo Dotson informed the team he was leaving for a position with the New York Jets. A source confirmed Dotson’s departure, which was first reported by Inside The League.
Dotson is the nephew of ex-Packers defensive tackle Santana Dotson, a member of the 1996 Super Bowl XXXI team.
Speaking at the end of the draft, Gutekunst indicated he would adjust the staff soon. Teams traditionally make personnel department staff changes after the draft, which is also when scouts tend to leave for new jobs.
“We’ll kind of address that in the coming weeks,” Gutekunst said. “The guys did a stellar job throughout the entire week, the entire process. But, yeah, we lost a couple, so we’re a couple bodies short. We’ll probably (make the additions) as we move forward.”
Director of college scouting Jon-Eric Sullivan and director of pro personnel John Wojciechowski could be in line for new titles, as could college scout Matt Malaspina, who spent four years as the San Francisco 49ers’ director of college scouting (2013-’16) before coming to Green Bay last year.
Ex-Packers safety Brandian Ross, who came through the same scouting internship program Gutekunst did 20 years ago, might be a candidate to replace Dotson.