Positional Breakdown: Inside Linebacker
The Packers inside-linebacker rotation remains an unknown after Blake Martinez (Giants) and BJ Goodson (Browns), the Packers leading tacklers in 2019, left in free agency. The Packers were unable to compete in the free agent market for the top tier inside linebackers this offseason. According to SI’s Packer Central, former Rams LB Cory Littleton was Green Bay’s top target — Littleton signed a three-year, $35.2 million deal with the Las Vegas Raiders. GM Brian Gutekunst’s wallet was a little light after splurging on the Smith Bros and Adrian Amos in the previous offseason, and Kenny Clark’s extension loomed on the horizon as well. The Packers hope that a healthy competition will get the most out of their inside linebackers in 2020.
The Free Agent Veteran
Christian Kirksey: 6’2 235
The 27-year-old Kirksey’s two-year, $13 million contract was the lone free agent signing for the Packers linebacker group. Kirksey’s rookie and sophomore seasons were spent under then Browns HC Mike Pettine. Kirksey’s familiarity with Pettine’s schemes provides an immediate interest spark, particularly in a year where exposure to a new team is limited due to COVID restrictions on player-coach meetings. Kirksey’s career was trending upwards before hamstring and pectoral injuries completely derailed his last two seasons. Before the injuries, Kirksey had amassed 186 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 8 pass deflections and 2 forced fumbles in his first two seasons as a full-time starter. Kirksey showed that he is an all-around linebacker who can play both the pass and the run and can be dynamic in doing so. However, missing 23 of 32 games is a huge red flag, and the only reason the Packers were able to afford Kirksey. A healthy Kirksey, will immediately out play his contract.
Kamal Martin: 6’3 240
Martin, the 5th-round rookie out of Minnesota, was making waves throughout camp before injuring his knee, putting him out 6-8 weeks. First, he surprised coaches with his preparation coming into the season.
Then he surprised the Boss with his explosiveness.
Martin’s ceiling was on full display for the Gophers in the Big Ten.
Martin would have been drafted much higher if not for a nagging knee injury that he tried to play through in his final collegiate season. Martin had surgery in the offseason to clear his knee up, and details on whether it’s the same knee have not been released. Something to keep an eye on.
Martin will force his way into the starting lineup if he can return healthy mid-season and pick up where he left off.
Oren Burks: 6’3 233
Burks first two seasons have been a major disappointment due to injuries. After selecting him in the 3rd round, the Packers had high expectations for Burks. His elite quickness, athleticism and explosiveness projected him to be an exceptional pass-covering linebacker who can also play the outside run.
The talent is ever-present in Burks, it is just a matter of staying healthy and showing the injuries haven’t deteriorated his game.
Ty Summers: 6’1 241
Summers, the 2019 7th-round pick out of TCU, played in all 16 games in 2019 (a rarity for the Packers inside-linebackers). However, all of his appearances came on special teams. The coaching staffed has expressed confidence in expanding Summers’ role in 2020.
Summers’ had a very solid 2019 preseason at linebacker.
Curtis Bolton: 6’0 238
Bolton, the 2nd-year undrafted rookie out of Oklahoma, was in position to start after Burks got injured last year. However, Bolton suffered a knee (ACL) injury and missed all of his rookie campaign. Currently still on the PUP list, Bolton’s future is a mystery. As of now, if the group remains healthy, Bolton is on the outside looking in.
A lot of fuss will be made over who the starting LB is next to Kirksey. While this conversation provides for a good debate, the simple answer is it will not matter. The 2nd inside-linebacker will only be on the field periodically during early downs. The Packers will use a ton of five DB personnel on 3rd down, which will leave Kirksey as the lone inside-backer. Also, look for the Packers to mix things up and utilize Za’darius Smith and Rashan Gary on the inside during obvious passing situations. The defense’s achilles heel was their run game in 2019, so whoever stops the run better between Martin, Burks and Summers will see the most snaps in 2020.