With eight days until the start of training camp, we continue our position previews with the inside linebackers.
Starters: Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington. Backups: Carl Bradford, Beniquez Brown, Blake Martinez, Manoa Pikula and Joe Thomas.
Coming: Martinez (fourth round), Brown (undrafted), Pikula (undrafted). Going: Nate Palmer.
Starters: Basically, everything is up for grabs at this under-the-spotlight position. Last season, Matthews and Palmer started 10 games together and finished second and third on the team, respectively, in tackles. Neither player is part of the equation, with Matthews’ move back to outside linebacker and Palmer’s release.
Barrington, Ryan and Martinez are the clear front-runners. Barrington was a key reason for Green Bay’s run to the NFC Championship Game in 2014. When Barrington was on the field, opponents averaged 0.83 fewer yards per rushing attempt. He seemed poised to build on that success as the three-down inside linebacker in 2015 until sustaining a season-ending ankle injury in the opener at Chicago.
“Sam Barrington, he’s one of my favorites,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said at the start of the offseason program. “Really, you put him out there, it doesn’t matter. He’s great. ... Sam and I, we became friends because we think the same. He has the same mentality as me. He’s coming to start a riot. That’s the way he plays football. We continue to feed into that type of identity, that personality in our defense. Sam, he’s a leader. He’s a guy, I don’t mind saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got it. Whatever you need done, I’ll get it done for you.’ I love him.”
Despite that strong endorsement, Barrington knows nothing will be handed to him. He’s played in only 22 of 48 career regular-season games with eight starts.
“My focus is to continue to grow as a player,” Barrington said. “When it’s time to play the game, the best players will be on the field. Whether I’m that guy or not, it’ll be judged on if I’ve prepared myself the right way.”
Barrington missed the offseason practices while continuing to rehab the injury. In his place, Ryan and Martinez took all of the reps with the No. 1 defense.
As was the case with Barrington in 2014, Ryan moved into the starting lineup late in 2015. The impact wasn’t as dramatic, with the run defense suffering by 0.14 yards per carry but the pass defensive improving by 0.11 yards per attempt. His tackle rate of one for every 6.05 snaps was No. 1 on the team. He has a nose for the football; he just needs to get there faster.
“The next step for Jake is to continue to grow,” assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley said. “He was an inside backer in college his last year but, in a way, he was still in a transition period to that inside role. What he needs to do is he needs to grow and he needs to be able to clean things up mentally and vision-wise. He’s a relentless guy to the ball. How much can he clean those things up and make it easier to make plays with good leverage? He was a productive guy last year and, on a lot of snaps, he wasn’t as clean as he should have been. A lot of times, he’s playing behind more than he should have. When he lines up and he knows what he’s doing, he can anticipate what the offense is doing and read his keys and go attack right now and he’s going to be that much more effective.”
Martinez was about as impressive as any player during the offseason practices. His athleticism and instincts were as-advertised — with the obvious caveat of those being noncontact practices and Martinez as yet to have shed a blocker to make a tackle.
“You know what? It’s about what we expected coming in,” McCurley said. “He’s a very bright, driven kid. Very meticulous about his preparation. The good thing when you talk about growth is he does a good job of being able to talk about things in the meeting room, walk through it, and then take it to the field. He can go out and execute things in a hurry. If he’s not clean on it, if he does make a mistake here and there, he has that light that goes on, ‘This is why.’ And he can correct his mistake and clean that up the next time. Right now, he’s tracking to where he needs to be in the offseason and in shorts.”
Dime: After Matthews rushed the passer just twice in the Week 2 win over Seattle, the Packers signed Thomas, who they had released at the end of training camp, off Dallas’ practice squad to handle the pass-coverage dime role. Thomas was fine, neither killing the defense nor making many splash plays with one sack and one pass defensed. He’ll be in the mix again, but look for Martinez or Ryan to be the guy playing on third-and-long.
We spoke often about Martinez’s Scouting Combine performance, with his 4.20-second clocking in the 20-yard shuttle, a test that measures change-of-direction agility, tying Ohio State’s Darron Lee for third-fastest among the linebackers. Know who else ran a 4.20? Ryan at the 2015 Combine. Ryan is almost an inch taller, ran faster (4.65 vs. 4.71), jumped higher (34.5 inches vs. 28.5 inches) and jumped further (10 feet vs. 9 feet, 5 inches) than Martinez.
Athleticism, obviously, isn’t everything, but it certainly helps when a linebacker is asked to chase a fleet-footed running back or athletic tight end. However, during the offseason practices, it was Martinez who got his hands on the most passes.
“That’s what it’s going to be all about now,” McCurley said. “It’s one thing to be able to know it, even to execute, but you’ve got to make plays. You’ve got to be productive. That’s what this league’s about: finding that way to do that. Really, the challenge that I bring to the whole inside group is, ‘How productive can we be? How much can we do to add value to this defense?’”
Backups: Thomas, Bradford and undrafted rookies Brown and Pikula will battle for another spot or two. Bradford was a big-play dynamo at Arizona State, but he hasn’t played a single snap since being a fourth-round pick in 2014. After spending last year on the practice squad, and watching Thomas go from off the roster entirely to taking over a vital role on the defense, it’s now or never. At the very least, he should have been a core player on special teams by now.
Brown was the better player at Mississippi State, and was given a $5,000 signing bonus. Pikula had a disappointing career at BYU but put up big numbers at pro day. He received a $2,500 bonus.
IF THIS HAPPENS ...
Can anyone make a play? The Packers might be able to replace Matthews’ play-to-play productivity. But can they possibly replace his impact?
For their brief careers, Barrington has one sack, one pass defensed and no forced fumbles, Ryan has no sacks, no passes defensed and no forced fumbles, Thomas has one sack, one pass defensed and one forced fumble and Martinez obviously hasn’t done anything. Big plays win football games. If someone can from this unit can make big plays, it would go a long way toward this defense becoming a championship-caliber unit.
Because of last year’s injury, Barrington is the forgotten man in the middle. Expect him to provide a quick reminder once the live hitting starts. While the average NFL team throws the ball 60 percent of the time, there’s still a need for a linebacker who can stop a running back in his tracks. Barrington is that guy for Green Bay. Just go to YouTube and find Barrington stinging New England’s LeGarrette Blount twice during the opening series of a 2014 showdown.
STATS has a stat called “stuffs,” which is defined as a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage on a running play. In 2015, Matthews had six stuffs in 66 tackles, Ryan had three in 46 tackles and Palmer had two in 64 tackles. In 2014, Matthews had six stuffs in 61 tackles while splitting the season between outside and inside linebacker, Barrington had three in 53 tackles and Hawk, the man Barrington replaced in the lineup, had zero in 89 tackles. While Ryan has the better stuff rate, look at the difference Barrington made in 2014. That 0.83-yard difference per carry is extraordinary, and it’s a major reason why Green Bay ranked sixth in run defense and seventh in yards per carry down the stretch.
“I’m no marshmallow,” Barrington said. “I’m like a rock. I’m like a burned piece of chicken. Not that it’s burned and it’s ruined, but it’s hard and you can’t penetrate it, you don’t want nothing to do with it. Know what I’m saying?”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.