Offseason Roster Analysis: Inside LB’s

Can someone emerge opposite Sam Barrington or will the Packers have to rely on Clay Matthews again?

Ryan photo by Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY

The Green Bay Packers will begin three weeks of organized team activities following Memorial Day weekend, with the first of those that’s open to the public set for Thursday, May 28. We get you ready with a positional look at the team, which continues with the inside linebackers.

Depth chart

Veterans: Sam Barrington, Carl Bradford.

Rookies and first-year players: Jake Ryan (fourth round), Joe Thomas (undrafted, 2014), Josh Francis (signed, 2015), Tavarus Dantzler (undrafted).

Noteworthy: If you take Clay Matthews out of the equation, this is an incredibly inexperienced group. Just look at the depth chart, which includes only two veterans. Barrington, a seventh-round pick in 2013, is the old man of the group. He broke into the starting lineup down the stretch last season and, though he’d take no credit for it, really solidified the run defense. Bradford is the great unknown. He was a fourth-round pick in 2014 after a career full of big plays at Arizona State. However, he bombed at outside linebacker and was sent to inside linebacker toward the end of training camp. Because the Packers were so healthy, Bradford was given the NFL equivalent of a redshirt season by being inactive for all 16 games (plus both playoff games). The only other professional experience at the position belongs to Francis, who spent time with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers — though he didn’t play in a game north of the border — and the Indoor Football League’s Wichita Falls Nighthawks in 2014.

Offseason outlook

The star: Barrington earns this designation by default. He started seven games in the regular season — including the final five, when Green Bay’s run defense stiffened. Barrington recorded 44 tackles in those five games, with three games of at least 10. Several of his tackles were of the tone-setting variety, most notably on New England’s Shane Vereen and powerful LeGarrette Blount on the opening series. During the final seven games (including playoffs), the Packers allowed more than 21 points in regulation just once. According to league data, Green Bay allowed 3.45 yards per carry when Barrington was on the field compared to 4.28 yards per carry when Barrington was on the bench. That 0.83 difference was the second-biggest among the Packers’ regular defenders. With that, it’s no wonder why coach Mike McCarthy said Barrington made a “huge step” last season.

The battle: Maybe the plan is to go with Matthews and Barrington to slowly break in Ryan or Bradford. McCarthy said Matthews has been attending meetings with both sets of linebackers. However, for the sake of this, if Barrington is entrenched at one spot, then it will be Ryan vs. Bradford for the other spot. Ryan started 41 games at Michigan, including every game at middle linebacker as a senior. Among the nation’s active leaders in tackles for losses, Ryan ranked third with 45.5. That has nothing on Bradford, who had a three-year total of 21.5 sacks and 43 tackles for losses — with 19 TFLs in 2013 and 20.5 in 2012. Can one of them emerge so Matthews can focus on playing outside linebacker?

Rookie impact: There’s no denying Ryan’s pedigree. His grandfather played in the CFL (before becoming an Ohio Supreme Court justice) and his father remains among the career receiving leaders at Wake Forest. There’s no denying Ryan’s toughness. About six-and-a-half months removed from a torn ACL, Ryan was back on the field. There’s no denying Ryan’s intangibles. Ryan was voted a rare junior captain by his teammates at Michigan — with the voting conducted while Ryan was rehabbing his knee injury. And there’s no denying his production, with Ryan voted a finalist for the Buktus Award, which goes to the nation’s best linebacker, with a senior season of 112 tackles and 14 tackles for losses. At 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, he’s got excellent size for the position. His 4.65 in the 40 was better than the 4.68 average of the top 10 inside linebacker prospects. Now, he just has to prove he can turn all of that into a difference-maker in the middle of the Packers’ defense. And don’t sleep on Dantzler and Thomas. Dantzer has a nice combination of size (6-2, 237) and athleticism (4.66 in the 40) while Thomas is undersized but was pushing toward a roster spot last summer before a knee injury.

Quoteworthy: “I like what Jake’s done the first two days,” McCarthy said during the rookie camp. “He’s bigger than I thought he was in person. I like that. He’s picked it up clean. Just making the calls out there, he’s been very assertive. I think he’s off to a very good start.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at

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