The Green Bay Packers selected edge rusher Lukas Van Ness with their first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. But the question remains, what can the team expect from the former Iowa star in his first season in the league and what kind of role will he play this year in the Packers defense?

Athleticism Creates High Rookie Expectations for Lukas Van Ness

Lukas Van Ness earned his spot in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft because of his outstanding athleticism. He has speed off the edge and such good size and strength that he earned the nickname “Hercules” in college.

While Van Ness never started a game at Iowa, he played more snaps than the players officially ahead of him on the depth chart because of his superior skills and playmaking ability. Iowa gives starting positions to their seniors as a team policy.

Now Van Ness needs to convert that size and athleticism into production at the NFL level. He still needs to improve his technique and hand work and to develop more pass rushing moves. Hopefully, that will come with experience. The quicker Van Ness can learn these skills, the more he’ll contribute as a rookie.

Rashan Gary’s Injury May Give Van Ness More Opportunities

The Packers are still unsure if Rashan Gary will be ready to start the 2023 NFL season on time. Gary is the team’s best pass rusher off the edge. He was playing at a Pro Bowl level last season when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 9.

If Gary cannot be ready for Week 1 or if he needs to be on a play count as he strengthens his injured knee, other players will get more work at edge. This would give Van Ness an opportunity to earn more playing time early in the season. If he can make a strong first impression on Joe Barry and Matt LaFleur, he could earn more playing time throughout the season.

Competition for Playing Time

Preston Smith will start on one side at edge, but Van Ness will have to battle for playing time on the other side if Gary is unavailable or limited. Second-year man Kingsley Enagbare will be hoping to build on a promising rookie year and will be a top candidate to start opposite Smith until Gary is ready to return.

Also in the mix is veteran returnee Justin Hollins who recorded 2.5 sacks in six games with the Packers last season.

These are the primary players Van Ness will have to compete with for playing time and possibly for a starting spot if Gary can’t play right away.

Van Ness’ Versatility Could Help Him Get Into the Packers Lineup

In college, Van Ness did not line up exclusively on the edge. At times, he put his hand on the ground and played along the interior defensive line.

It is possible the coaching staff will have Van Ness line up in different positions at different times to get him on the field more often. The key will be how quickly he picks up the defensive playbook and proves he can pressure opposing quarterbacks from the interior line.

Ideally, the coaching staff would like to get Van Ness on the field at different positions to keep offenses off balance and to get as many of the team’s most talented pass rushers on the field at the same time. If he’s equal to the task, Van Ness could eventually play a similar role to that of Za’Darius Smith when he was part of the Packers defense.

A Bottom-Line Starting Point

Even if Van Ness takes longer than anticipated to adjust to life in the NFL, he should be part of the team’s rotation at edge rusher. That would mean he plays 25-30 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and would mostly be on the field in obvious pass rushing situations.

The quicker the Iowa alum learns how to read and diagnose running plays, the more opportunities he should play on any down and distance.

The Packers hope to see growth from Van Ness in his rookie campaign. If he finishes the season stronger than when he started it and has an expanding role, his first NFL season would be considered a success.




Follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers

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