Packers Hoping to Get By at Inside Linebacker

With no big additions at linebacker this off-season, Green Bay will be hoping for just 'good enough' in 2021.

It’s pretty clear that inside linebacker has not been a priority in Green Bay for quite some time.

The last first round pick spent at the position was back in 2006 when A.J. Hawk was drafted out of Ohio State.

In recent years, the Packers have instead drafted linebackers in the middle or late rounds –doing so in five of the last six drafts – and picked up a low-cost veteran to add experience where necessary.

If one of these players turns out to be a quality starter, it’s a bonus, but Green Bay’s personnel department clearly feel they can win games with average (or below average) linebacker play.

Of the Packers five draft picks since 2016, the most successful was without a doubt fourth-round pick Blake Martinez, who provided rock solid if unspectacular play in green and gold for four years.

When it came time for Martinez to get paid though, the Packers decided to spend their allowance elsewhere, letting him depart in free agency for a big-money deal with the Giants.

Martinez later described his role in Green Bay as that of a clean-up crew, and after his exit, Brian Gutekunst brought in Christian Kirksey to fill that unenviable vacancy.

Kirksey was a disappointment during his lone year in Titletown, so the Packers cut ties and looked elsewhere as they transitioned to a new defence in 2021.

If you were wondering whether the new scheme was more reliant on linebackers, or would lead to Green Bay valuing the position more… nope.

Gutekunst left it late to add to the linebacker room once again, drafting Isaiah McDuffie in the 6th round and then spinning the journeyman wheel, landing on De’Vondre Campbell.

The Packers will just be hoping Campbell provides better play than Kirksey did last season.

The former Cleveland Brown played 53% of Green Bay’s defensive snaps in 2020, more than any other linebacker, so Campbell should have plenty of opportunities to make an impact as the old head in the room.

Where the remainder of the snaps will come from remains to be seen, with plenty of young ‘backers vying for playing time.

Kamal Martin, a 2020 draft pick, flashed in camp last summer with his attitude and physicality, but his performances in regular season action were inconsistent at best.

That opened the door for surprise package Krys Barnes, who ended up playing more than double the percentage of defensive snaps compared to Martin (41% to 19%).

Barnes had his ups and downs a year ago, but looked like he belonged at the NFL level, which was extremely impressive for an undrafted rookie with no preseason reps under his belt.

The improvement of Barnes and Martin will be a crucial factor in how good or bad the Packers’ linebacker corps is in 2021, because the other options are not appetizing.

Oren Burks has been a profound let down and is on his last chance, with his special teams play appearing to be the lone thread by which his roster spot is hanging.

Ty Summers is another possibility, but the third-year man has failed to make his mark so far and looks set for a career as a backup and special teamer.

It’s not that the Packers don’t care about linebackers at all, they just clearly view it as the lowest priority position on the defensive side of the ball.

And with NFL defences now more focussed on stopping the pass, rendering old school linebackers obsolete and pushing more defensive backs onto the field, it’s hard to argue with that logic.

High-end linebackers are still hugely valuable. Just ask the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who caused immense problems for opposing offenses with their duo of Lavonte David and Devin White.

But there’s more than one way to win in the NFL. The 2019 Kansas City Chiefs, who won it all with a far from stellar linebacking corps serve as a perfect example of that.

While it often made for a frustrating watch on Sundays, the Green Bay Packers won a lot of games last season despite underwhelming linebacker play, and they’ll probably do it again in 2021.

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Mark Oldacres is a sports writer from Birmingham, England and a Green Bay Packers fan. You can follow him on twitter at @Marko7LW

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5 points

Comments (46)

Fan-Friendly This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.
ricky's picture

July 08, 2021 at 07:01 am

The Packers don't think inside linebackers are important in their defense. And the sun rises in the east. Thanks, but is this part of the reason they're so bad at stopping the run? Does this mean that tight ends and running backs are facing worse defenders? Or are the defensive packages with more DB's capable of covering and tackling these bigger receivers? Just wondering.

6 points
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Turophile's picture

July 08, 2021 at 01:35 pm

This idea that ILBs are under-rated always triggers me.

Jake Ryan (drafted 2015) round 4
Blake Martinez (drafted 2016) round 4
Josh Jones (2017) round 2
Oren Burks (2018) round 3
Kamal Martin (2020) round 5

Ryan was a good player whose career was cut short by an ACL that slowed him enough that the Packers had to move on from him.
Martinez was a good player currently earning $10m per year with the Giants.
Josh Jones was a big safety who could have been a solid 'move' type lighter ILB that the league was moving towards, but flamed out.
Oren Burks never realised his potential either.
Kamal Marin looked ok while he played but lost time to injury

So, plenty of investment. The rewards were spotty at best, but the INVESTMENT was there.

4 points
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Turophile's picture

July 08, 2021 at 01:35 pm

double post

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jannes bjornson's picture

July 08, 2021 at 07:27 pm

I thought this was a article from ten years past, scrubbed with a new lead.

1 points
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Crankbait's picture

July 08, 2021 at 07:20 am

And the Packers Defense mindset continues to be a definition of insanity....keep ignoring the linebacker position and expect your defense to get better and reach championship caliber.

6 points
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Stroh's picture

July 08, 2021 at 10:17 pm

You spend valuable resources on valuable positions. ILB simply isn't that valuable of a position to spend high draft capital on. Edge rusher, CB DL and Safety are all more valuable. If you have a chance to get a perennial Pro Bowler it's a different discussion. Right now, in today's NFL ILB is the least important position on Defense!

0 points
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nostradanus's picture

July 08, 2021 at 07:24 am

Having #12 and #4 at QB has covered up a lot of warts on Defense for decades!

We will see what happens when #10 enters the picture as the full time QB, priorities may change a bit.

10 points
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mnbadger's picture

July 08, 2021 at 12:31 pm

spot on, plus, there'll be more cash available to add significant upgrades at these lower priority positions on the team. Prime examples include ILB, DL & ST players with either more talent or history of success at the positions. GPG!

1 points
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Stroh's picture

July 08, 2021 at 10:21 pm

It won't change in regards to ILB! Not until the NFL becomes a run oriented league (don't hold your breath).

2 points
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stockholder's picture

July 08, 2021 at 07:53 am

ILB- The Failure of GUTE! What SUPER-BOWL PLANS? Ignoring the obvious? As long as we win the division. Were Happy. It's all luck. Well I'll bet somebody is luckier then Gute. But he's done a great job if your blind. Especially if Rodgers keeps winning the MVP. So keep looking away packer fans. Praise him until we can't win the division.

-5 points
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jannes bjornson's picture

July 08, 2021 at 07:31 pm

Those Fans lost all credibility when they backed Wolf's move to bring sherman onboard then allow him to run the ship into the rocks.

-1 points
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Coldworld's picture

July 08, 2021 at 07:57 am

We have a new coach and system, let’s see what that turns out to mean in terms of how ILBs are used. Personally, I think Pettine had issues with his usage across the entire front 7. It started up front with his Lowry obsession. Let’s see what Barry intends. Campbell isn’t a bad player by any means and I see upside in Martin. I will be watching not just play but how ILBs are used in camp.

6 points
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Razer's picture

July 08, 2021 at 08:00 am

I wouldn't mind the devalued ILB position if we valued our D-line talent. Aside from Kenny Clark, we are running bargain basement talent on this front as well, In combination, deficiencies in both areas set the ceiling for this defense.

16 points
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CheesyTex's picture

July 08, 2021 at 09:24 am

Right on, Razer.

Just hoping Slaton can solidify interior DL. If he can, IMO LB play will look a lot better.

6 points
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MITM's picture

July 08, 2021 at 02:19 pm

I do not expect Slaton to make much of an impact at all this season even with an extended number of snaps played out of necessity. Think Kenny Clark and BJ Raji in year 1 compared to year 2. We need KeKe to stay healthy and be a difference maker otherwise it will be the same old story along the line - Clark and nothing else

0 points
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jannes bjornson's picture

July 08, 2021 at 07:36 pm

Then you need 4-2/4-3 looks to bring in two heavy weights for close quarters drill. Lowry should be moved during summer session.

-2 points
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Amy Berk's picture

July 08, 2021 at 09:19 pm

That's why we don't win any SBs, mediocre defense to back up a few great players like Kenny Clark.

3 points
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Crankbait's picture

July 09, 2021 at 06:26 am

Finally hearing from realists on the subject.

1 points
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mrtundra's picture

July 08, 2021 at 08:06 am

GB has been trying to get by at ILB for years, now!

4 points
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greengold's picture

July 08, 2021 at 07:57 pm

The Packers finally have a DC in Joe Barry well versed in ILB coaching, at a very high level, and with proven results.

Over the past couple of years Gutekunst has added the physical traits he's wanted: length, speed/size, coverage ability, large tackle radius. I think Kamal Martin, Devondre Campbell and Ray Wilborn all share these same physical characteristics. A couple of the hybrid Safeties who will be working with the ILBs fit the same bill in Vernon Scott, Innis Campbell and Christian Uphoff.

I'm excited for the amount of quality talents added, along with the new emphasis to get them coached properly to excel.

Ray Wilborn is one of my top sleeper picks to make the Packers 53 man roster - ILB/S 6-3 230 4.56:
Wilborn played both ILB and S for Ball State, and allowed the lowest passer rating against for a LB in the MAC from PFF at 71.0 in 2019. He plays smart, tough football. Breaks down well, fires up field v. run with good wrap up tackling at the point of attack. Plays faster than his 40. Moves well in every direction. Super active player on D and STs. Highly coachable.

In two seasons, Wilborn had 166 Tackles, 12.5 TFL 3 sacks, 4 INT, 8 PD and 2 FF. Started all 24 games. Those are very close to Devin Bush numbers. He was previously signed by the Falcons and the Steelers in 2020, so he's not new to NFL life like your normal rookie.

I like Krys Barnes. Thought he played well coming in cold as a UDFA. He exceeded my expectations, anyway. Barnes fits another physical prototype Barry likes in his ILBs, the shorter, stockier, punisher quality. I'd say Barnes, Summers and McDuffie all fit that category.

Should be interesting to see how he uses these players, and how they develop under his guidance as DC in GB.

10 points
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HarryHodag's picture

July 08, 2021 at 08:44 am

The inside linebackers need great play by the defensive line to keep them free of blockers.

For a long time the Packers have had a great interior player on the d-line (Clark)and two or more mediocre linemen on each side. Put two outstanding linemen on each side of Clark and watch what the linebackers do.

Martin and Barnes will be fine. They're young and mobile. Campbell will provide a steady force.

At some point Gute must address the defensive line as a priority.

12 points
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PatrickGB's picture

July 08, 2021 at 10:06 am

I agree but most of those big guys are rare and often gone when it’s our turn to pick in the draft or way too expensive in FA. If a “bend but don’t break” defense works then you stick with it until it no longer works. Also if your offense out scores the other team then a defense deficit in quality LB play does not matter.

3 points
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Stroh's picture

July 08, 2021 at 10:34 pm

Personally I would have drafted Jeffrey Simmons at #12 instead of Gary. But a case can be made either way. ILB is probably the least important position on D because it is so heavily dependent on the DL and OLB freeing them up to make plays.

2 points
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wildbill's picture

July 08, 2021 at 09:37 am

The Packers played a 4-3 defense when Hawk was drafted as a 4-3 outside linebacker. He was switched to inside linebacker when we switched to a 3-4 defense, so he wasn’t drafted as an ILB.

9 points
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Slim11's picture

July 08, 2021 at 12:06 pm

I often wonder how that defense would have done with Hawk and CM3 as OLBs and Bishop and Barnett in the middle.

1 points
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MITM's picture

July 08, 2021 at 02:22 pm

Aj Hawk never under any circumstances could/should/would have been a 3-4 OLB/edge guy. He was a very good 4-3 OLB which is almost an entirely different position altogether. Its funny how when we had great LB depth we also had our best defenses. We also had much better DL depth at that time as well.

4 points
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MITM's picture

July 08, 2021 at 02:20 pm

Exactly right. And Hawk was a star at that 4-3 OLB spot.

2 points
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wildbill's picture

July 08, 2021 at 03:40 pm

Was third in Defensive rookie of the year and had excellent play as an outside linebacker! When he was switched to inside he had to change his body to fit the role. Hawk was a great Packer and always left it all on the field which is all you can ask of a player.

2 points
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Ferrari-Driver's picture

July 08, 2021 at 05:35 pm

Excellent point wildbill. While Hawk may have fallen short of our expectations, he was a solid linebacker and a good guy. I still have his jersey hanging in my closet next to my favorite Bart Starr jersey.

3 points
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Lphill's picture

July 08, 2021 at 09:50 am

In the NFCCG when Summers was put in I believe in the second half he rated out as most productive , shutting down most of the middle of the field plays , I saw a analysis by an independent scout who had posted this awhile after the game.

7 points
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Coldworld's picture

July 09, 2021 at 09:51 am

I saw that, both impression during the game and the analysis after from a couple of sources. It surprised me at the time and still did later rewatching.

Not enough to be certain but enough that I’ve commented several times that he is a player I will be watching closely in camp. He is the biggest and most athletic ILB we have. If it’s clicking, that would be a huge plus!

1 points
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13TimeChamps's picture

July 08, 2021 at 10:05 am

In GBs last 6 drafts, they have drafted 1 true DL in the first 2 rounds....Kenny Clark in the 1st rd 2016. Rashan Gary was listed as a DL in college, but is used primarily as an OLB in GB. Since that 2016 draft, only one other DL has been drafted in the first THREE rounds...Montravious Adams.

Our top DLinemen not named Clark are a 4th rounder (Lowry), a 5th rounder (Keke), and an UDFA (Lancaster). This is who our ILBs are playing behind. Fix the Dline, and the ILB situation will take care of itself.

11 points
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Tundraboy's picture

July 08, 2021 at 10:11 pm

Yes, and don’t wait anymore. What more proof is needed after the last several playoff losses.

0 points
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Coldworld's picture

July 09, 2021 at 09:59 am

D linemen do not have to be high picks to be good. They often develop with time. Physically, I think Keke was one of those who now he has may fulfil his potential.

To me, the reason has been not just picks that didn’t work out, but the whole approach to personnel usage on the DL. Pettine was a big part of the problem. Seemingly Z thought so too with his intervention ( a Highpoint of DL play from which Pettine progressively retreated). Hopefully this year Barry will start to turn that around.

1 points
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Qoojo's picture

July 08, 2021 at 11:26 am

Seems that many people are plagued with a fantasy football mindset. Gute had to prioritize positions, and the packers had many needs. Pretty much the needs at other positions override the need at ILB. Those positions are more important.

I do think that DL has been ignored too much. Good OL and DL make the other positions better.

We will just have to see if things improve with the new DC.

4 points
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Coldworld's picture

July 09, 2021 at 10:02 am

I do not blame Gute. Look at our roster last year, look at who Pettine used and when. Drafting high if a coordinator doesn’t want to use them would be irrational. Gute did give Pettine bigger bodies. While they played well in a few snaps, Pettine tried very hard to keep them on the bench or inactive. Doesn’t matter how good one is sitting.

2 points
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Qoojo's picture

July 09, 2021 at 12:46 pm

Yes, exactly right.

1 points
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Ferrari-Driver's picture

July 08, 2021 at 11:51 am

I still kind of miss the big plays of Ray Nitschke.

7 points
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wildbill's picture

July 08, 2021 at 03:36 pm

How I miss his great plays!!

3 points
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greengold's picture

July 08, 2021 at 05:39 pm

66 Ray Nitschke was and remains my favorite player for the Green Bay Packers. H.O.F. 1978.

2 points
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Tundraboy's picture

July 08, 2021 at 10:14 pm

Sigh. I have long since given up waiting for the next Ray. At any position. The guy hated losing! Closest we have had since was Reggie.

1 points
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Stroh's picture

July 08, 2021 at 10:38 pm

It was a completely different game in the '60s than it is today!

1 points
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splitpea1's picture

July 08, 2021 at 01:17 pm

The Packers need to place greater priority on the inside front end of the defense as a whole. In addition to White and David, they have Suh and Vea in the middle, and will also line up Gholston, Barrett, and Pierre-Paul there on occasion. So they can get plenty of pressure on the QB from the inside and out while the ILBs "clean up" everywhere else.

Barry on linebackers: "We can teach them what to key and what to specifically look at. But good linebackers, they're given instincts, they're given awareness. That's not coached....Specifically at that position, we'll see how it plays out."

So all I can deduce is that we're in the same situation as we were last season: Barnes is our best overall bet, Martin still needs to make a lot more progress, and let's hope that Campbell is a significant improvement over Kirksey.

1 points
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Amy Berk's picture

July 08, 2021 at 09:35 pm

It's the Packers philosophy ....until they get a QB that can not bail out the defense, there is no need to defend against the run..... right.

-1 points
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Stroh's picture

July 08, 2021 at 09:50 pm

Might want to do some fact checking. Hawk was drafted to play OLB in a 43 D. That's what he played at OSU and what he played till Capers became the DC. May not have mattered, but we don't know. He was moved to ILB due to a new DC and scheme change.

0 points
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LayingTheLawe's picture

July 08, 2021 at 11:17 pm

I disagree totally. They are hoping sure, but what they are hoping for is that Martin and Barnes are two budding young playmakers. They need some support if they are not, but that's the hope for sure. - not just getting by.

0 points
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