GREEN BAY – Reggie Gilbert did his research before signing on the dotted line with the Packers last year as an undrafted free agent.
The University of Arizona defensive end and his agent put all of Gilbert’s options on the table as soon as the NFL Draft concluded. Some teams wanted him to play outside linebacker. A few preferred Gilbert as a 4-3 defensive end.
After weighing a bevy of offers, all of Gilbert’s calculations and analysis showed Green Bay to be the best destination to launch his NFL career.
“We knew off the bat what I was going to play here,” Gilbert said. “They told me it was going to be more of a hybrid role. I knew I’d rush the passer a lot, but I’d also be involved in some cover concepts. So I knew what I was getting myself into.”
The Packers have a strong track record with undrafted free agents, but especially outside linebackers. The position has seen six college free agents make the opening 53-man roster since 2011, representing nearly a third of the 22 undrafted rookies who made the team during that span.
Gilbert hopes to add his name to that list of success stories after overwhelming depth at the position resulted in him spending his rookie year on the Packers’ practice squad.
The opportunity still proved invaluable to the 6-foot-3, 261-pound linebacker, as it aided his transition to his new position and helped Gilbert adjust to life on special teams after he played almost exclusively on defense at Arizona.
A four-year starter and team MVP as a senior, Gilbert had 143 tackles and 14 sacks in 57 games with 47 starts for the Wildcats from 2011-15. He found his prior experience rushing inside at Arizona provided a foundation for what linebackers are asked to do in Dom Capers’ flexible scheme in Green Bay.
In the classroom, Gilbert took every chance he had to bounce questions and ideas off the likes of Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Julius Peppers. The education was endless.
“I tried to take the opportunity and run with it,” Gilbert said. “I was always asking those guys questions if it was something they did in one-on-ones or if they changeup their stance. We have guys who are some of the best pass-rushers in the league, so I definitely try to take little parts of their game and incorporate them in mine.”
The meeting room has changed slightly this offseason. While Perry re-signed with the Packers in March, Peppers returned home to Carolina at the start of free agency and elephant rusher Datone Jones signed with Minnesota.
The Packers drafted Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel to help restock the position, but likely will be relying on their returning reserves to help fill the void.
In his quest to make the 53, Gilbert trained at the Fischer Institute in Phoenix, Ariz., this offseason with a focus on conditioning and quickness. As important as it was to hone his technique at linebacker, Gilbert aimed to further develop his skills on special teams.
“All this was new to me,” said Gilbert of special teams. “I know a big thing for me was I was really uncomfortable on special teams last year, so I really trained on working in space and being more comfortable in being out there in space.”
Gilbert feels it’s made a difference and teammates have started to notice.
One of the Packers’ top undrafted finds – fourth-year linebacker Jayrone Elliott – followed a very similar road to the NFL as Gilbert. Elliott played a comparable hybrid role at Toledo, rushing both out of a two- and three-point stance.
Likewise, Elliott didn’t have much special-teams experience when he arrived in Green Bay. Over the course of his three NFL seasons, however, Elliott has developed into one of the leaders on coordinator Ron Zook’s unit.
When Elliott looks at Gilbert, he sees many of the same traits that helped him succeed despite taking the hard road to the professional ranks.
“I think he has the potential to be a stud,” Elliott said. “He asks questions about his technique and he’s ready to work. He’s made a complete change with his body, lost some weight and he’s coming in ready to compete. I’m excited for him.”
Gilbert feels a full offseason in Green Bay has hastened his growth. He enjoyed getting more hands-on experience with the starting defense after Matthews and Perry were excused with the rest of the team’s veterans during minicamp.
Gilbert understands what’s in front of him when training camp begins at the end of the month. After a year of dedicating himself to his development, it’s time to put it all together.
“I definitely think it’s night and day,” said Gilbert of his development from a year ago at this time. “I want to be able to contribute more than what I was doing last year in practice. Once I reach something, I’m always striving to be something better.”