Green Bay will get its defensive lineman in the 2016 NFL Draft — most likely in the first round. It might be Jarran Reed out of Alabama. Maybe Andrew Billings from Baylor. Or Kenny Clark from UCLA. Big bodies. Athletic. Versatile run-stuffers with a little bit of pass rush who could make plays in the base 3-4 alignment or the nickel defense.
With B.J. Raji’s unexpected hiatus from football and Mike Pennel’s impending four-game suspension, the Packers need to replace some big cuts of beef up front. Who they tab to line up with veterans Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion with the 27th pick in the first round remains to be seen. But assuming they go defensive line in the first round, where should they go next?
Linebacker, specifically someone to play inside, seems like the logical choice.
If the Packers are intent on moving Clay Matthews — their best inside linebacker — to his preferred outside spot (at least for the bulk of his snaps), they’ll need to have a capable replacement. Considering Matthews’ Pro Bowl blend of instincts, athleticism and tenacity, it won’t be easy.
The highest-rated inside linebacker in this year’s draft — Alabama’s Reggie Ragland — seems unlikely to slide far enough down the first round for Green Bay to grab, with Atlanta at No. 17 and Washington at No. 21 possible landing spots.
Penciled in as Green Bay’s starting inside linebacker duo are Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington. Ryan is entering his second year. Barrington enters his fourth — but the bulk of two seasons were spent on injured reserve. Combined, they have 12 regular-season starts between them and present as many questions as answers in the middle of the Packers’ defense.
A fourth-round draft pick out of Michigan last year, Ryan was starting opposite Matthews by season’s end. He lined up with the ‘ones’ for the final five games of the year and finished with 50 tackles, adding 11 more in two postseason games. The Packers passed on more highly touted linebackers like Clemson’s Stephone Anthony, who went to the New Orleans Saints at No. 31 — one spot after Green Bay selected Damarious Randall — and UCLA’s Eric Kendricks, who was taken by Minnesota in the second round at No. 45.
With a small sample size to draw from, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Ryan looked steady and reliable, not unlike a young A.J. Hawk, who left Green Bay for Cincinnati after nine seasons. But not exactly the havoc-wreaking, turnover-creating, sideline-to-sideline tackling machine fans hoped for. Ryan supplanted Nate Palmer, who started 10 of the first 11 games last season and was released on April 8.
Palmer stepped into the lineup after the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Barrington suffered a season-ending foot injury. Barrington had started the final seven games of 2014 and led the team with 15 tackles in the postseason. He was being counted on for big things in 2015. Now he’ll look to pick up where he left off a year later than planned.
For comparison, Anthony started all 16 games at middle linebacker for the Saints, leading his team with 144 stops while adding five tackles for losses, one sack, two forced fumbles and an interception as their defense finished 31st. Kendricks, also a middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme, led the Vikings with 105 tackles and chipped in 11 tackles for losses, nine quarterback pressures, four sacks and two passes defensed in 11 starts as their defense finished 13th — two spots ahead of Green Bay. Both players made the all-rookie team.
But will Barrington return as the punishing, downhill player seen thumping running backs at the end of 2014? And will Ryan continue to build on a decent ending to last season in Year 2? And will either of them be as effective playing next to the other — instead of a Pro Bowl talent like Matthews?
Even if Ryan and Barrington secure the starting spots heading into the 2016 season, questions linger about who would be best suited in the team’s sub packages, especially as the lone linebacker in the dime package. And there’s precious little depth behind them.
Joe Thomas, an undrafted free agent in 2014, was cut at the end of training camp last summer, then re-signed off Dallas’ practice squad to fill the dime role. He played 318 snaps in 14 games and made a few plays, with five quarterback hits, two passes defensed and a forced fumble. The only other inside linebacker on the roster is Carl Bradford, a converted outside linebacker who spent last year on the practice squad.
The answer at inside linebacker might actually be found by looking outside. What sounds like fortune-cookie wisdom simply means that the Packers’ search for a dynamic playmaker could lie in drafting one of the fastest, most versatile outside linebackers in this year’s draft and playing him inside from Day 1.
Two players fit the bill of a new trend of linebacker that can cover the tight end down the seam and running back in the flat like a safety, but still bring the wood when needed to stuff the run. Three-down backers who are an asset when opposing offenses spread the field, not a liability. Those linebackers are Ohio State’s Darron Lee and LSU’s Deion Jones.
Green Bay had its eye on a similar player in the 2014 draft, but Pittsburgh took Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier at No. 15, six spots ahead of where the Packers took Alabama safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, filling arguably their most glaring defensive need. Certainly no one is complaining, given that Clinton-Dix has performed near a Pro Bowl level. But players like Shazier are the type of fast, dynamic playmaker that could provide a jolt to the middle of a Green Bay defense intent on sliding Matthews back outside.
Searching for the next Shazier could elevate the defense in a way that even Ragland couldn’t. A converted outside linebacker who ran a 4.38 at the 2014 Scouting Combine, Shazier is coming off a standout sophomore campaign for the Steelers with 87 tackles, one interception and 3.5 sacks. His 13 tackles and forced fumble on Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill put his team in position to move on after the Bengals’ epic playoff meltdown. Shazier has missed 10 games in two years with knee, ankle and shoulder injuries — something that could in part be attributed to playing inside linebacker at barely 230 pounds — but every player offers a risk-reward equation to evaluate.
The closest clone to Shazier is Lee, a redshirt sophomore who took his place as a defensive force for the Buckeyes. A shade shorter at 6-foot-1 and a touch slower at 4.46 in the 40, Lee was a two-year starter in Ohio State’s 4-3 base defense. A 195-pound quarterback in high school, he started his career as a safety before bulking up to 232 and replacing Shazier at strong-side outside linebacker in 2014. He covered, blitzed and racked up 81 tackles, 16.5 tackles for losses, 7.5 sacks and two interceptions that season as Lee earned defensive MVP honors in a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. In 2015, Lee finished with 66 stops, 11 tackles for losses, 4.5 sacks and earned second-team all-Big Ten honors. But like Shazier two years ago, Lee is a likely top-15 pick who should be long gone by the time the Packers are on the clock.
There is another option, however, that should be on the board when the Packers come up in the bottom of the second round.
While Lee had an impressive resume coming into 2015, Jones had just one start under his belt for LSU and wasn’t on anyone’s radar, let alone being talked about as an early-round draft pick. That all changed last season as the 6-foot-1, 222-pounder earned defensive MVP honors for the Tigers and was a Butkus Award finalist after tallying 100 tackles, 13.5 for losses, five sacks, two picks and a forced fumble.
Smart in his reads, explosive against the run and smooth in coverage, he even lined up at cornerback on some plays — not unlike what Lee would do as a walkout linebacker at times in the Buckeyes’ scheme. Named defensive captain by his teammates, Jones was also a fearless special teams player. After turning heads at the Senior Bowl, he has the look of a difference-maker at the next level.
While he ran a disappointing 4.59 at February’s Scouting Combine, he redeemed himself with a blistering 4.38 at LSU’s pro day — then ran a second 40 at 4.40 for good measure. Speed is not the end-all, be-all at any position, but in an increasingly pass-happy league, it remains a highly coveted commodity — and a 4.38 at any position is impressive. Jones is neither as experienced or refined as Lee. He doesn’t jump off the film in quite the same way. But given what he did for the Tigers last season, coupled with his measurables and upside for a player who started just one season, he could wind up being a steal with the No. 57 overall pick.
Now, it’s possible that Thompson simply doesn’t value the inside linebacker position enough to address it early in the draft. He didn’t last year, passing on Anthony and Kendricks and waiting until the third day of the draft to grab Ryan. And Barrington, a sixth-round pick out of South Florida in 2013, stepped in when the team was bleeding yards on the ground two years ago and more than proved himself. Then again, having the luxury to play Matthews inside, with players like Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Nick Perry on the outside, may have simply devalued the position heading into last year’s draft. Moving Matthews back outside puts a renewed urgency on the position.
That said, finding the next Shazier, Kendricks or even Deone Bucannon, the 6-foot-1, 208-pound safety-turned-linebacker who had a breakout year for the Arizona Cardinals, leading them in tackles, forced fumbles and recoveries, should be a priority.
The addition of a versatile athlete like Jones provides an element to the inside linebacker position that the Packers simply don’t have and opens up a world of possibilities for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to make life miserable for opposing offenses. Ryan and Barrington are good. A player like Jones could be special. In a season with Super Bowl aspirations, it only costs a second-round pick to find out.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.