As discussed before, there are some positions Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson doesn’t value. On offense, it is the offensive guard position, on the defense, it is the inside linebacker position. The Packers inside linebacker position has struggled for a long time. There are a few seasons that have been exceptions, but for the most part, the Packers inside linebackers have struggled, especially in pass coverage. If the position is going to improve, something needs to change. Change will be necessary for the Packers inside linebacker position.
Change Will be Necessary For The Green Bay Packers Inside Linebacker Position
Last season, the Packers starting inside linebackers were rookie Blake Martinez and second year player Jake Ryan. Both players were similar in size (Martinez 6’2” and 238 pounds while Ryan is 6’3” 230 pounds), having the stature to be stout against the opposing teams running game. Although both had the ability to hold up against the run, neither showed that they were adapt at dropping back into coverage. This is nothing new for the Packers inside linebacker position. It has been a very poorly kept secret that since Dom Capers has been the Packers defensive coordinator, the Packers have struggled defending the middle part of the field in pass coverage. In most cases, it has been the Packers inside linebackers responsibility to defend this part of the field and they have failed in doing so. Fellow inside linebacker Joe Thomas was the best out of the three in pass coverage, but still, Thomas had his struggles. Whenever the Packers defense faced a tight end with above average receiving skills, it turned out to be for the Packers pass defense, with the tight end taking large chunks of yards at a time in the passing game.
The Deone Bucannon Effect
The NFL is a copycat league. When a team develops a process that has success, many teams follow suit in implementing what that team does. This was the case when the Arizona Cardinals utilized safety Deone Bucannon as a linebacker. Bucannon, who played collegiately at Washington State, was drafted as a safety. But with his physical playing style and his larger size for a safety (6’1”, 216 pounds), the Cardinals decided to play him at linebacker, not just on passing downs, but in all situations. The bet paid off for the Cardinals and Bucannon thrived at his new position.
Green Bay took notice of the success Bucannon had and decided to implement that into their own defense last season. Veteran safety Morgan Burnett saw time at inside linebacker last season and the Packers found some success. Although Burnett isn’t as heavy as Bucannon (he is generously listed at 209 pounds) he showed that he had the toughness to play the linebacker position. Because Burnett has the coverage skills of a safety, he brought a skill to the linebacker position that has been sorely missing for the Packers. But one fallback of moving Burnett to linebacker in certain situations is it weakened the safety position opposite Ha Ha Clinton Dix. That is why Thompson made a point to bring in help in this year’s draft.
Help Is On the Way
Thompson spent the Packers second of their two second round picks on North Carolina State safety Josh Jones. While playing for the Wolfpack, Jones was utilized in many different positions. Listed as a safety, Jones wasn’t just your run of the mill in the box safety. He lined up in back coverage but also was utilized as a linebacker, playing closer to the line of scrimmage. This was probably what drew Thompson to Jones, envisioning him playing linebacker in some defensive sets for the Packers. Jones has more weight than Burnett at 220 pounds and can handle more of the pounding than he can. With Jones in the fold, it will allow Burnett to line up at safety, strengthening the back end of the Packers. If Capers rather slots Jones in at safety, he can then move Burnett back to linebacker. Either way, they will have players who have the ability to defend the pass from the linebacker position, something they haven’t had in a long time.
There has been a lot of talk this off season about moving Clay Matthews back to inside linebacker, a position that he played in the past and had some success in doing so. But the Packers might have some shortage at outside linebacker, with the departures of Datone Jones and Julius Peppers via free agency. To go along with that, Thompson only used one pick, a fourth round selection on Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel, on an outside linebacker in this year’s draft. Biegel’s availability for training camp is up in the air though, with having offseason surgery on his foot, already leaving a depleted outside linebacker corps even more depleted. That might force Matthews into playing more outside linebacker than inside linebacker this season.
The Packers are hoping the hard playing Jones can upgrade their linebacker positon. They aren’t giving up on Martinez and Ryan just yet, but they are making sure they have options, something they haven’t had in recent history at the inside linebacker position.