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Do Packers Have a Breakout Possibility at Inside Linebacker?

In my search for unheralded Packers players who give indications they’re about to have a breakout season, I’ve so far compiled this list: TE Jace Sternberger, WR Reggie Begelton, and safety/hybrid Raven Greene. Sticking with the defense, my next candidate is a tough guy out of Oklahoma, who spent all last season on injured reserve: Curtis Bolton.

You likely would have seen Bolton on the field quite a bit last year, if not for the ACL injury the rookie suffered in the third preseason game against Oakland. Until then, Bolton was one of the biggest surprises of the preseason.

Like some of my previous picks, Curtis had to scratch and claw his way up from obscurity. And like Jace Sternberger, Bolton only had just one memorable collegiate season. From 2015 through 2017, Bolton didn’t start a game for the Oklahoma Sooners. A shoulder injury as a junior cost him opportunities in 2017. In his first three years, he managed only 16 tackles, and virtually no other stats, as a special teams player.

Finally, as a redshirt senior, Curtis got his chance, and he was ready. He got the start in all 14 games for the Sooners. The team went on to be ranked fourth in the nation in most polls. In that year’s Orange Bowl, they battled mighty Alabama, losing by a 45-34 score.

Here are the numbers that Curtis put up for the Sooners in 2018: 139 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, and 2 pass breakups.

Packers ILB Curtis Bolton

Mar 13, 2019; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma linebacker Curtis Bolton participates in positional workouts during pro day at the Everest Indoor Training Center at the University of Oklahoma. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

His 9.9 tackles per game ranked third in the Big 12. He scored 2 TDs as a special teamer and a third one on defense. He put up some prodigious tackle totals: 9 against Bama in the Orange Bowl; 10 in the Big 12 championship win over No. 9 Texas; 10 more against No. 12 West Virginia; 13 tackles in the Sooners first game against Texas; and he had 23 tackles (fourth most in school history) against Army. Sounds like the Pack lost one tackling machine, but has another waiting in the wings.

For his heroics, Bolton was named an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention by the league’s coaches, as well as being named by AP as a second team midseason All-American.

That one spectacular year, in which he finally got more than token playing time, wasn’t enough to interest any NFL team in drafting him. Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst didn’t jump right away either, though eventually – on May 3 – he signed Bolton up for three years for somewhat under $2 million (sources differ on the exact amount).

Peter Bukowski did a nice job of profiling Curtis, who the Packers list at 6’ and 228 pounds, in mid August of 2019. He describes how Bolton’s journey took him from a lightly-recruited high schooler, to a collegiate special teams terror, to being a long-shot rookie for the Packers.

It didn’t take long for Curtis to improve his odds with making the Green Bay roster. Pro Football Focus graded him the league’s top defender in Week 1 of the preseason. Two weeks later, however, Curtis was struck down with an ACL tear in the third preseason contest against the Raiders. Given that the injury happened prior to the regular season (as did Jordy Nelson’s), Bolton should be back to nearly 100% by the start of the 2020 regular season.

Bolton is very much under the radar presently. I’m not aware of any Combine-type numbers for Bolton, and I can’t find any college highlight reels either. In his 2-plus preseason games, Curtis totaled 10 tackles, including a team-high 6 against the Ravens. He’s certainly made more use of his limited opportunities than has Oren Burks.

One of Bukowski’s sources was Sooners’ linebackers coach Tim Kish, who commented after the 2018 season: “That’s exactly the player I expected him to be. . .He doesn’t think anyone can beat him. He wouldn’t say that to you, but I will.’

While he’s undersized for a pro ILB, his aggressiveness and physicality seem to compensate. In fact, earlier in his college career, his explosiveness off the line caused his linebackers coach to feel he might be best utilized as an edge rusher.

Bolton’s Prospects in Green Bay

After Bolton’s first two preseason games, in which he got extra playing time due to an injury to Oren Burks, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine expressed unusual (for him) optimism about Bolton:

“I think he’s handled it well. He was a guy that we were very pleased to sign as an undrafted free agent. Going back to look at his college tape, and he was very productive. It’s not a surprise to us that he’s done some of the things he’s done. He was productive at one of the country’s top programs at Oklahoma, so he’s done it on a big stage. You know, just not having the measurables, you can see why he kind of fell and didn’t get drafted, but the kid’s a football player. He’s very instinctive. He knows how to slip blocks. . .He’s done a real nice job of being able to soak in what we’re doing, and then apply it on the field.”

Within days of those comments, Bolton suffered his ACL injury.

As the draft approaches, the Packers have four ILBs on the roster: Christian Kirksey, Oren Burks, Ty Summers, and Bolton. Injury-wise, Kirksey has missed 23 of his last 32 games, Burks has suffered serious injuries in both of his training caps, and Bolton is recovering from an ACL tear. Summers, a seventh-round choice in 2019, looked good on special teams, but didn’t impress enough to get any playing time on defense last season.

While Kirksey is the apparent successor to Blake Martinez – and of course pending the draft – it appears to me that Curtis has the inside track on that second ILB spot. If he wins the job, I think he’ll have a bust-out year. The combination of Kirksey and Bolton could well result in an improvement over Martinez and the various defensive backs Green Bay so often inserted at ILB last year. In particular, Bolton’s tackling ability should substantially improve the team’s run defense.

Tags:
Rob Born

I’m with Matt: “You gotta make those chunk plays!”

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18 Comments

  1. Jason Parker April 8, 2020

    The comments should be functioning normally now. Sorry for the inconvenience.

    Reply
    1. PF4L April 9, 2020

      I’m watching you

      Reply
      1. Jason Parker April 9, 2020

        that bitch carole baskin did it

        Reply
        1. PF4L April 9, 2020

          I’m damn near too embarrassed to admit i even watched that.

          Although i signed up for the free trial on Netflix and binged watched all 3 seasons of Oregon. I’d watch 3 more if i could.

          Reply
          1. Jason Parker April 9, 2020

            Watch Ozarks. It’s great

            Reply
          2. PF4L April 10, 2020

            Grrr…I meant Ozarks. I think you might have been right about me months ago, i’m not very bright.

            Reply
          3. Jason Parker April 10, 2020

            Was just projecting my own insecurities. 👍

            Ozark season 3 is one of the best things Netflix has done.

            Reply
          4. PF4L April 10, 2020

            Nah…it’s just me. I tried googling “Ozarks Netflix” the other day, fishing for anything interesting about it. Well…i googled Oregon Netflix for some reason. I just have Oregon in my fkg head.
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            I’m going to chalk it up to my head ricocheting off the pavement last August.
            *
            Otherwise, without really getting into it, the first 2 episodes really suck you in. It was very well written sans some questionable story line details. But i can’t remember the last time i refuse to miss an episode of anything other than a Packer game.

            Reply
  2. John Jacobson April 8, 2020

    I sure like your enthusiasm and the odds may be against them with all of the injuries this group has had, but if things fall for the Packers, this group could certainly be an upgrade. Fingers crossed there for that group for sure, so if the Gute is thinking along your lines,, it would be surprising to see them pick a LB with the first overall pick. I’m still hoping that a OT worth drafting drops to us in the first round. Our team success has been built on OL play, and this unit needs some depth and a possible starter at OT. I’m glad you wrote this article because I forgot about Bolton and the possibilities are certainly exciting.

    Reply
  3. PF4L April 9, 2020

    Always pulling for the underdog. You can never have too many UDFA’s.
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    I think i want to wait until he actual makes a tackle in a NFL game, but that’s just me, i’m hardcore.
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    We’ll see.

    Reply
    1. Cheese April 9, 2020

      What UDFA is going to tip the scale and make this defense elite again? What UDFA is going to step up and fill that #2 WR position? Or the #3, or #4 position? Most people are looking forward to the upcoming draft, but I can’t contain my excitement for the undraft!

      Sarcasm aside, what are the odds the Packers find an UDFA that outperforms their first round pick?

      Reply
      1. PF4L April 9, 2020

        Hey….i don’t have all the answer’s, all the time man!
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        Side note: The pressure on me to perform in here is intense.
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        :)

        Reply
  4. PF4L April 9, 2020

    How about some good news?
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    There are going to be 2 live sport event’s this month, how cool is that?
    1) UFC 249
    2) NFL Draft
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    Something…is better than nothing.

    Reply
    1. PF4L April 10, 2020

      Check that…….
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      It seems Daddy (ESPN) told Dana White to turn off UFC 249, and go to his room.

      Reply
      1. Jason Parker April 10, 2020

        damn it

        Reply
        1. PF4L April 10, 2020

          It has to be killing Dana to stand down. He was talking pretty tough about this. Reminded me how tough Rousey talked before the Holmes fight.

          Reply
  5. Skinny April 9, 2020

    This aint the ice capades. The Packers need to address the ILB spot in this draft. But theres a couple DTs that probably will be there that i just cant pass up if im the Packers.

    Reply
  6. Ferris April 9, 2020

    This guy looked like Ray Lewis in the preseason, he did more than make the team and was going to start. He looks like he can play.

    Reply

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