Pick a day, any day, and the opinion of Rashan Gary’s NFL Draft projection varies like the Michigan weather in the spring.
One day, his draft stock is warm, he’s moving up the first-round ranks and the next day he drops off a bit, analysts having cooled a bit.
Before the NFL combine in Indianapolis last month, the conversations regarding Gary, the former Michigan defensive end who left with a year of eligibility remaining, were focused on his “freak” athleticism. There might have been a passing comment about his 10 sacks over three seasons, but most wanted to see if his athleticism lived up to the hype. He performed well at the combine, putting up numbers most analysts anticipated, but with more and more research of Gary, the new angle became, “Hey, about that lack of production while at Michigan..."
Mel Kiper, ESPN’s longtime NFL Draft analyst has, admittedly, been all over the place in terms of projecting Gary because of the unknowns. Strong college statistics don’t always translate to the NFL — there have been college stars who have been NFL busts — but there was a reason Gary was the No. 1 overall high school prospect. Did he show enough reasons why during his Michigan career? He missed three regular-season games last fall because of a shoulder injury suffered just before the start of the season and opted not to play in the Peach Bowl, so he missed four games to add to his stats.
Still, for NFL analysts, that’s not enough to absolve him of the fact he had only 10 career sacks.
Gary, considered a sure first-rounder in the draft that begins Thursday in Nashville, has made the media rounds recently and knows there is some question about his production while at Michigan. During an interview with NFL.com, Gary addressed his critics, suggesting he drew added attention, often a double team, which would free defensive end Chase Winovich, projected a second-round selection, to swoop in for the sack or tackle for loss.
“At the end of the day, I know me and what I'm capable of and all of my abilities,” Gary told NFL.com. “If people want to talk about my production, we can sit down one-on-one and talk about it face-to-face. We can bring in my D-coordinators if it gets to that.
“In college, teams were scared to run my way, so if I eliminated a team from running to the right side, you know it's coming to the left. So it's just my presence and the tenacity I bring every play. I'm a defensive end first, but you can throw me in and I can play 3-technique, stand up and rush off the edge, drop into the flat, curl, hook and things like that. I feel like that's what separates me.”
The 6-foot-4½, 277-pound Gary does have pure athleticism. He ran a 4.58 40 at the combine and has good upper-body strength. Kiper has referred to Gary as an “enigma” and said a player with his skill set should have double the sack production.
With that in mind, Kiper has drifted up and down the draft board with Gary, projecting him at one point inside the top 10 and more recently, significantly lower in this draft that is defensive linemen-heavy. Kiper agreed with an assessment Monday that he’s been “hot and cold” on Gary.
“That’s accurate because you thought he would be top five, top 10 based on his physical talent and the way he tested at the combine,” Kiper said Monday during an ESPN conference call. “Then, the lack of sack production, 10 sacks in 34 games. One GM said 10 to 28 for a range for Rashan Gary. Ten to 28. That’s a heck of a range for a guy who is very polarizing.
“Some teams may figure once he’s in the NFL we can coach him up and get the sack production. Others will say, ‘Hey, Chase Winovich was getting production and in the backfield being disruptive. He was coached by the staff, and he was running in the same scheme.’”
Kiper suggested Gary will be selected middle of the first round or a bit lower. Linebacker Devin Bush is the only other player from Michigan who has a first-round projection, and his stock has continued to improve since the combine.
“I just think by the time you get to the middle of the first round, maybe Miami at 13, the Giants at 17 if they get the quarterback early, you have Minnesota at 18,” Kiper said, regarding Gary. “I think somebody in that 13 to 19 range may look at Rashan Gary.”
Analysts have been consistent in terms of describing Gary as an athlete. Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network said last month during a conference call that he considered Gary more as an athlete than a football player at this time in large part because of games missed last year.
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown dismisses talk of Gary’s lack of production. Brown has all along praised his versatility.
“I kind of disagree with it,” Brown told NFL Network after Pro Day last month, regarding the knock on Gary. “It’s what you’re asked to do within the scheme. He’s a 280-pound defensive end that runs around like a 260 pounder. In our defense, it all starts with knocking the tight end back. Who better in the country to knock the tight end back than him? Obviously, we did a lot of inside movement and edge stuff. We asked him to be a complete football player and not just rush the passer, and he did it great and was a great teammate.”
Gary has spoken highly of himself since the combine, making sure teams know he believes in himself and that it’s all about confidence, not cockiness. On Thursday he will find out which team wants to find out just how good he can be.
“I’m the best player in this draft offensively and defensively,” Gary said at the combine and then reiterated after Pro Day at Michigan. “Period.”
When he was asked why he thinks that, Gary, as he often does, flipped the question in a playful manner.
“Why do I think or why do I know?” Gary said, pausing for effect. “My versatility, and I know what I put into this. Like I said, I’m able to do a lot of things that a lot of defensive linemen in this class can’t do. I pride myself on being able to do that.”
He has admitted he needs to improve every aspect of his game, including his run block and pass rush, and has always been a player who studies film in his free time looking for an edge or a new technique to add to his arsenal.
He considers himself a self-starter because he wants to be the best.
“When it comes to self-motivating, it’s my will to be great,” Gary said. “I know my capabilities, I know what I’m capable of, and I want to be great now. Whatever team drafts me is going to get a person that wants to come into the organization and be great right now. I want to be a Pro Bowler, I want to be a Hall of Famer, I want to be a Super Bowl champion, so they’re going to get that attitude right away.”