The writing is on the wall. It was probably there during the Green Bay Packers’ 2016 season: inside linebackers are dead.
We have long discussed the devaluation of the position in Green Bay. We complained when the Packers refused to draft a playmaking inside linebacker high in the draft. We complained when they passed on free agents like Danny Trevathan.
But maybe the Packers were just ahead of the curve.
They drafted Blake Martinez in 2016 to be a coverage linebacker, but he didn’t really own that role. Instead, the Packers ended up playing the undersized Joe Thomas almost exclusively down the stretch.
Thomas is decent in coverage, but can be exposed in the running game. He gets eaten up by blockers and isn’t a great tackler, something inside backers are known for.
Similarly, the Packers also used safety Morgan Burnett as an inside linebacker late in the 2016 season. In that package, they brought in Kentrell Brice at safety next to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
And now they’ve drafted Josh Jones, a safety from North Carolina State they immediately had running with the inside linebackers.
All of this says one thing.
The Packers care more about defending the pass than they do stopping the run.
And if you ask anyone, the NFL is a passing league. The Packers play their nickel defense more often than they do their base defense.
That means one of the Packers’ two traditional middle linebackers isn’t on the field more often than not. And now, it appears they’ll be on the field even less.
Of the current group, Jake Ryan is the best run defender. But what will that get you? One-third of the defensive snaps?
As we’ve mentioned before, Ryan isn’t a playmaker. He hasn’t had a sack, an interception or a forced fumble in his first two seasons.
Thomas is a liability in every other area besides coverage.
Martinez is still an unknown at this point.
The Packers would be best served by putting Clay Matthews back at inside linebacker. He can be a playmaker there and he’s solid in coverage, but their current lack of a pass rush likely dictates that he’ll stay outside.
So that leaves us with the hybrid safety/linebacker role.
If the hype on Josh Jones is legit — and we hope it is — then he could change the way the Packers’ defense plays. The Morgan Burnett experiment suggests that has already happened.
But with Jones, the Packers have a bigger, faster version of Burnett.
Dom Capers’ defense definitely doesn’t evolve overnight. Hell, it hasn’t really evolved in 30 years, but it may be evolving now.