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Packers Have Undervalued Inside Linebacker Position

The inside linebacker position has lately been all the rage. Inside linebackers are expected to both stuff the run and pass-defend the middle of the field. A delicate mix of size (or toughness) and speed is called for. The Green Bay Packers have not found a player with the right mix for a decade. Nor have they gone after a top inside linebacker prospect in all those drafts.

From 2007 to the present, the Packers haven’t chosen an inside linebacker in the first, second, or third rounds. I’m excluding Clay Matthews in 2009, who has played inside linebacker, but was chosen to be a pass rusher.

In the fourth round, the Packers chose Blake Martinez in 2016, Jake Ryan in 2015 and Carl Bradford in 2014, although Bradford was drafted as an outside linebacker and then converted to inside linebacker when he failed at his original position.

In the fifth round, the Packers picked Terrell Manning in 2012.

In the sixth round, they picked Nate Palmer in 2013 (who was a college defensive end), D.J. Smith in 2011 and Desmond Bishop in 2007.

In the seventh round, they picked Sam Barrington in 2013 and Brad Jones (an outside linebacker in college) in 2009.

As to the team’s current inside linebackers, the league-wide consensus is that Ryan, Martinez, and the undrafted Joe Thomas are nothing special. Ryan had the best season of the bunch, with 82 tackles in 14 games, but only one pass defended. His 20 tackles in three playoff games is a hopeful sign. Martinez had 69 tackles in 13 games, four passes defended and a sack. He lost playing time to Thomas, the better pass defender, late in the year and through in the playoffs.

Over the last three years or so, we’ve all known of the need for a strong inside linebacker, but each time the Packers have looked to fill other holes first. Ten drafts in a row without an inside linebacker pick in the first three round suggests that the Packers don’t attach much importance to the position. Some other teams do, however.

Falcons and Patriots Linebacker Comparisons

The Atlanta Falcons were an 8-8 team in 2015 under new coach Dan Quinn – who came from Seattle, where he was the defensive coordinator for the prior two years. It was Seattle who had one of the steals of the 2012 draft when they selected All Pro Bobby Wagner in the second round.

The Falcons arguably have the best young linebackers in the NFL. They play a hybrid 4-3 defense, unlike the Packers who have three linemen, two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers. But they struck it rich in the 2016 draft: four rookies might start on the defensive unit you’ll see in the Super Bowl: Keanu Neal (first round) at safety, Brian Poole (undrafted) at nickel back, and Deion Jones (second round) and De’Vondre Campbell (fourth round) at linebacker.

The two new linebackers are a big reason Atlanta’s record improved so much in a year. Jones, with 4.59 40-yard dash speed, had 108 tackles, three interceptions, and 11 passes defended in 15 games. Campbell, with 4.56 speed, played in 11 games and had 48 tackles, an interception, and seven passes defended.

Then there’s a third linebacker, though he’s the equivalent of an outside linebacker: Vic Beasley, the eighth overall pick in 2015, with 4.53 speed, led the NFL in the regular season with 15.5 sacks.

Surprisingly, none of these three linebackers statistically stood out two weeks ago against the Packers: the three totaled seven tackles and not much else.

Atlanta has built its entire defensive unit, not just on its linebackers, but around speed. In contrast, Green Bay’s inside linebackers had dash times of 4.65 (Ryan), 4.70 (Thomas) and 4.71 (Martinez).

The New England Patriots, on the other hand, have opted for size and experience: Dont’a Hightower, fifth year, weighs 265 pounds; Rob Ninkovich, 11th year, 260; and Shea McClellin, fifth year, 250, and it’s the former Bears’ first year with the Patriots.

Packers ILB Prospects

You might say the Packers have taken the middle road between speed and size – or that they have settled on neither speed nor size. The teams three top inside linebackers are all from 23 to 25 years old, so they might well continue to develop. However, both Ryan and Martinez look and act very much like fourth-round picks — neither under nor overachieving.

Surely the past 10 years have shown that not prioritizing the inside linebacker position has resulted in nothing but a series of mediocre players. The one near-exception was when Green Bay wisely chose Desmond Bishop in a late round in 2007. The budding star’s career was sadly compromised, however, by a preseason injury in 2012.

Will Ted Thompson acknowledge the perennial gaping weakness in the middle of the team’s defense, and will he use a first or second round choice to pick a hybrid player who’s fast enough to pass defend and big or tough enough to bring down running backs? We’ll know in March.

Rob Born

Smart drafters don’t select the best available players, they fill a team’s positions of greatest need.



  1. Gopack February 5, 2017

    So many options at ILB over the past several years and tt repeadly passes them up. Aside from restructuring clay, they need to move him inside and use a high round pick on another. Use the draft or dare I say free agency to bolster the edge rush and cb spots. I don’t see them being able to address cb, de, and lb just through the draft. Obviously tt isn’t gonna give up on Randall Rollins Ryan and Martinez because he spent a draft pick on them. Maybe it’s too early to give up on them but it doesn’t mean he can’t at least get a veteran cb to help and we definitely need an edge rush to make life easier on the secondary. I’d hope they address one or both in free agency and the other along with lb in the draft.

  2. Gort February 5, 2017

    I still think that Matthews would make a very good inside linebacker. His effectiveness on the outside is diminished and when he is forced inside, he does reasonably well there. The whole defense needs playmakers, not just warm bodies. There are lots of warm bodies on the current defensive roster and not enough playmakers. The Pats and Falcons defenses have more playmakers as selected by their personnel departments with an effective combination of draft choices and free agents (both undrafted and veterans). I don’t have a lot of confidence in Ted and his staff to choose playmakers instead of warm bodies.

  3. Shawn February 5, 2017

    The Falcons ranked 25th in defense in yards allowed and 27th in defense in points allowed. Run defense is probably the most direct measure of your ILBs, and in yards per carry, the Falcons ranked 27th while the Packers ranked 12th.
    Yes, the Falcons have speed at ILB. That’s nothing original for a dome team. Big deal. It didn’t result in a very good defense. The Pats have a much superior defense without any speed at the same position.
    The Packers are fine at ILB. They haven’t dedicated any high picks at a position that isn’t particularly valued by the NFL. So, they aren’t out of step there. Jake Ryan was clearly better in year 2 than year 1. If he and Martinez both can continue to improve, I don’t see the Packers adding there.
    Ultimately, I think the dime position gets filled by Marwin Evans or Kentrell Brice as a hybrid. Both were not assignment-sure enough in 2016 for the Packers to rely on them. Give them another year and they have the kind of speed and size to give the Packers the best option they’ve had at that position in a long time.

  4. PF4L February 6, 2017

    It use to be that the ilb position was the one weak spot of the defense. It’s still a problem in coverage.

    But ilb is the very least of the Packers problems on defense. As far as the eye can see, our cornerback position is bankrupt of talent. The other problem consisting of underperforming def. lineman. A position that Ted has whiffed on more times that we can remember in regards to high draft picks. We do have 4th round pick Mike Daniels who sometimes brings it, sometimes doesn’t show up.

    At olb we had Peppers who’s most likely retired and rightfully so. We have Mathews who seems to be a shell of himself. Teasing us occasionally making a play, but without a doubt underperforming his contract. We have Perry who has now shown something in his 5th year, but who will also be looking at signing a contract north of 7+ mill/year and he has leverage.

    So you have 2 major problems in front end push, and poor cornerback play. So how do you repair it? Through the draft? Free agency when we don’t have much cash?

    Even if you draft talent, it usually takes time for that talent to adapt to everything associated with making the leap from college to the NFL. And that’s assuming you can hit on draft picks. Can anyone say that any player from the 2016 draft stood out? I don’t think so.

    Although we’d like to wave a magic wand and have a top 10 scoring defense next season, to at least give us a chance is more than likely fools gold.

    This defense is in need of an infusion, of leadership, talent, passion, and identity. Ted is still in charge of player acquisition. Capers apparently is still the Defensive Coordinator.

    Now let me ask…..Lets say the defense underperforms again next season. Let’s say that we get into the playoffs again and get removed. That would be seven years in a row.

    I then beg the question, like i did after the Falcon game.

    When is enough, enough, before we make real changes?