A large portion of snaps at inside linebacker didn’t actually go to the linebackers themselves in 2017, they instead went to hybrid safeties Josh Jones and Morgan Burnett in ex-defensive coordinator Dom Capers “Nitro” defense. Due to this scheme change, the Packers only carried three inside linebackers over the course of the season. A position that Ted Thompson never invested premium draft capital in, it will be interesting to see what new general manager Brian Gutekunst and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine due to upgrade the middle of the defense. With one of the three inside linebackers from this past season now under contract with the Dallas Cowboys, Gutekunst will certainly be looking to add more talent and depth behind Blake Martinez, who led the NFL in tackles in 2017, and his running mate, Jake Ryan.
2017 Stats: 16 games, 144 total tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception
Contract Situation: Signed through 2019 season
One of few bright spots on Green Bay’s defense, Martinez is a perfect example of a player taking that “second-year jump”. The former fourth-round pick out of Stanford lead the league in tackles, and consistently made plays on ballcarriers week in and week out. While his stats are very impressive for a second-year player, there was actually a number of flaws in Martinez’s 2017 season that he could improve upon starting this season. Most notably, Martinez needs to make sure he finishes the plays he creates. All too often, opposing running backs were able to evade Martinez, forcing him to miss tackles allow big plays. While 144 tackles is a lot, imagine how many more he could have had if he was able to bring down runners on a more consistent basis. Second, Martinez has a lot of work to do when it comes to pass coverage. While linebackers will never be mistaken for shutdown corners on the field, it would be great to see Martinez hone his pass coverage skills to effectively cover opposing tight ends, phase running backs out of the passing game, and clamp down on the screens that all too often killed the Packers on third downs last year.
2017 Stats: 15 games, 81 total tackles, 1 forced fumble
Contract Situation: Signed through 2018 season
Ryan, a former fourth-round pick just like the linebacker mentioned before him, didn’t have quite the success that Martinez had despite one extra year of experience. Ryan’s never been a flashy player in his time with the Packers, but for a Day 3 draft pick he’s had a solid but unspectacular impact. Quite possibly the worst linebacker on the Packer’s roster in pass coverage, the former Michigan Wolverine plays primarily on early downs in run support, and at this point in his career, I don’t see that changing. While Ryan is technically penciled in as the starter opposite Martinez, the possibilities of moving Clay Matthews inside, dropping Josh Jones into the box, or even drafting a playmaker like Roquan Smith at 14 overall all remain, and all would likely present an upgrade at the position. That being said, Ryan has one year left on his rookie contract considering the amount of experience he has, combined with his cheap price tag, expect him to remain a contributor at least for the 2018 season.
2017 Stats: 12 games, 14 total tackles
Contract Situation: Signed with the Dallas Cowboys this offseason
Thomas, a former undrafted free agent, went from leading all Packers’ linebackers in snaps in 2016 to primarily playing special teams in 2017. While Thomas is no superstar, he is an above average pass coverage linebacker and often played in nickel packages for Capers’ 2016 defense. He was phased out of the gameplan last season due to the aforementioned “Nitro” package, as either Burnett or Jones would step down into the box to cover opposing running backs or tight ends. Because of this, the Packers must have deemed Thomas expendable this offseason, allowing a key special teams contributor and experienced backup to walk out the door for a modest 2 year, $3.6 million deal with Dallas. Perhaps the biggest blow from his departure is with special teams, where special teams coordinator Ron Zook will not only have to replace Thomas’ production but also the void left by Jeff Janis, who signed a deal with the Cleveland Browns last week.
Level of Need: Medium
At first glance, it would appear that inside linebacker would be a huge need on the defensive side of the ball, considering only two players remain at the position. However, this isn’t necessarily the case considering the position will certainly be treated differently under Pettine’s tenure. The new defensive coordinator may only play with one inside linebacker on the field at a time, instead plugging in a slot corner or fourth defensive lineman depending on the situation at the time. I still expect Green Bay to actively pursue some talent late in the draft, or maybe potential roster cuts late in training camp to add depth to the bottom of the roster. Adding in the fact that Clay Matthews and Josh Jones have experience in the middle and the potential for another jump from Martinez, it appears as though the Packers don’t need to invest any high draft picks in the draft this season to ensure quality play from the inside linebackers.
All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.
All contract information courtesy of Spotrac.com.