In the battle to be the player who takes Clay Matthews’ spot at inside linebacker, Carl Bradford oddly seems to be the odd man out.
While it appears Nate Palmer or Jake Ryan are the finalists, Bradford has made more plays than either of them.
“Yeah, he’s done a lot of good things in practice,” assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley said on Thursday.
So what’s the issue?
Consistency. Bradford, a fourth-round pick last season who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, is still getting acclimated to life in the middle after starring on the outside at Arizona State.
“It’s really getting used to being off the ball and seeing everything so he can react right now (and) being able to see this key so he can play fast and get where he needs to be,” McCurley said. “It’s a process with all of them. Sometimes, they’re right on. Sometimes, they’re seeing it. Other times, they might be a step behind. That’s the big thing with the group.”
For context, Bradford has been at his best in the half-line drill. There is no trickery or deception or misdirection in the drill. Every play is a run, which has allowed Bradford to attack. On Thursday, he stuffed rookie fullback Aaron Ripkowski and stopped rookie running back Alonzo Harris for no gain. He made a tremendous play later. While guard Josh Sitton opened a big hole against Christian Ringo, Bradford rushed in to fill the void and stop the play for a minimal gain.
In 11-on-11 periods, however, Bradford has been less active.
“It’s a progression. A progression for sure,” Bradford said. “Definitely getting used to just being out there, being comfortable around the defense in that position. I feel like I’m getting better day by day.”
While Bradford made the move inside late in training camp last summer, it wasn’t until this spring when he said he finally found some comfort. The Arizona State scheme revolved around his attacking style, which is why had had 20 sacks and 40.5 tackles for losses during his final two seasons. Playing inside linebacker requires some patience and the ability to read the action in front of you.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Bradford said. “I still have a long way to go, but I came a long way — coming from college and playing outside and never having to cover a guy or do any of that. I feel like I’ve stepped up a lot in that area.”
McCurley called Bradford a “dynamic” player. At 6-foot-1 and 248 pounds, he’s got excellent size to defend the run. And his pass-rushing history adds another element, which he showed with his sack against New England.
“Whenever he sees it clean, he’s an explosive guy,” McCurley said. “He’s a big guy. He can strike and hit and he does a lot of good things. It’s the same with everybody in the group. They’ve just got to read their keys and trigger and play fast, and good things will happen.”
These final three preseason games could be the biggest of his career. If he can put it all together, he’ll force his way into the starting conversation. If the inconsistency lingers, he might find himself the odd man out. The special-teams depth charts weren’t too promising this week, with Bradford being a No. 1 only on kickoff return.
“It’s not in my hands,” Bradford said of his fate. “I just go out there and perform and do the best I can do every day.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.