The inside linebacker position has lately been all the rage. Inside linebackers are expected to both stuff the run and pass-defend the middle of the field. A delicate mix of size (or toughness) and speed is called for. The Green Bay Packers have not found a player with the right mix for a decade. Nor have they gone after a top inside linebacker prospect in all those drafts.
From 2007 to the present, the Packers haven’t chosen an inside linebacker in the first, second, or third rounds. I’m excluding Clay Matthews in 2009, who has played inside linebacker, but was chosen to be a pass rusher.
In the fourth round, the Packers chose Blake Martinez in 2016, Jake Ryan in 2015 and Carl Bradford in 2014, although Bradford was drafted as an outside linebacker and then converted to inside linebacker when he failed at his original position.
In the fifth round, the Packers picked Terrell Manning in 2012.
In the sixth round, they picked Nate Palmer in 2013 (who was a college defensive end), D.J. Smith in 2011 and Desmond Bishop in 2007.
In the seventh round, they picked Sam Barrington in 2013 and Brad Jones (an outside linebacker in college) in 2009.
As to the team’s current inside linebackers, the league-wide consensus is that Ryan, Martinez, and the undrafted Joe Thomas are nothing special. Ryan had the best season of the bunch, with 82 tackles in 14 games, but only one pass defended. His 20 tackles in three playoff games is a hopeful sign. Martinez had 69 tackles in 13 games, four passes defended and a sack. He lost playing time to Thomas, the better pass defender, late in the year and through in the playoffs.
Over the last three years or so, we’ve all known of the need for a strong inside linebacker, but each time the Packers have looked to fill other holes first. Ten drafts in a row without an inside linebacker pick in the first three round suggests that the Packers don’t attach much importance to the position. Some other teams do, however.
Falcons and Patriots Linebacker Comparisons
The Atlanta Falcons were an 8-8 team in 2015 under new coach Dan Quinn – who came from Seattle, where he was the defensive coordinator for the prior two years. It was Seattle who had one of the steals of the 2012 draft when they selected All Pro Bobby Wagner in the second round.
The Falcons arguably have the best young linebackers in the NFL. They play a hybrid 4-3 defense, unlike the Packers who have three linemen, two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers. But they struck it rich in the 2016 draft: four rookies might start on the defensive unit you’ll see in the Super Bowl: Keanu Neal (first round) at safety, Brian Poole (undrafted) at nickel back, and Deion Jones (second round) and De’Vondre Campbell (fourth round) at linebacker.
The two new linebackers are a big reason Atlanta’s record improved so much in a year. Jones, with 4.59 40-yard dash speed, had 108 tackles, three interceptions, and 11 passes defended in 15 games. Campbell, with 4.56 speed, played in 11 games and had 48 tackles, an interception, and seven passes defended.
Then there’s a third linebacker, though he’s the equivalent of an outside linebacker: Vic Beasley, the eighth overall pick in 2015, with 4.53 speed, led the NFL in the regular season with 15.5 sacks.
Surprisingly, none of these three linebackers statistically stood out two weeks ago against the Packers: the three totaled seven tackles and not much else.
Atlanta has built its entire defensive unit, not just on its linebackers, but around speed. In contrast, Green Bay’s inside linebackers had dash times of 4.65 (Ryan), 4.70 (Thomas) and 4.71 (Martinez).
The New England Patriots, on the other hand, have opted for size and experience: Dont’a Hightower, fifth year, weighs 265 pounds; Rob Ninkovich, 11th year, 260; and Shea McClellin, fifth year, 250, and it’s the former Bears’ first year with the Patriots.
Packers ILB Prospects
You might say the Packers have taken the middle road between speed and size – or that they have settled on neither speed nor size. The teams three top inside linebackers are all from 23 to 25 years old, so they might well continue to develop. However, both Ryan and Martinez look and act very much like fourth-round picks — neither under nor overachieving.
Surely the past 10 years have shown that not prioritizing the inside linebacker position has resulted in nothing but a series of mediocre players. The one near-exception was when Green Bay wisely chose Desmond Bishop in a late round in 2007. The budding star’s career was sadly compromised, however, by a preseason injury in 2012.
Will Ted Thompson acknowledge the perennial gaping weakness in the middle of the team’s defense, and will he use a first or second round choice to pick a hybrid player who’s fast enough to pass defend and big or tough enough to bring down running backs? We’ll know in March.