Packers Training Camp 2016: Inside Linebackers
From Brian E Murphy, Packers Insider senior editor
~Last year, during the 2015 NFL Draft, most Packer Draftnick’s wanted general manager Ted Thompson to use his first round pick on one of the handful of starting-caliber inside linebackers.
At the time, Sam Barrington was the only somewhat-proven inside linebacker on the roster, aside from Clay Matthews. Everyone should have known by then that Clay was a natural outside linebacker, who thrived best there, and who enjoyed being there.
When the Packers were on the clock, at pick 30, they had their choice of any inside linebacker in the class. There had been rumors of the Packers being in love with Clemson’s Stephone Anthony, who possessed the speed and height to run with fast tight ends.
Others had speculated that the Packers would jump for UCLA’s Eric Kendricks, who had great instincts and coverage abilities. Still others preferred Denzel Perriman from the U. That’s Miami, Florida.
Of course, as we all know by now, Thompson surprised everyone and grabbed a safety who he thought could convert to cornerback. That, of course, was Damarious Randall from Arizona State. Randall has looked very good and the pick looks like a winner. He might have some Pro Bowls in him, so Thompson deserves credit for that pick.
Ironically, the next pick, number 31, was Anthony to the Saints, and a few selections later the Vikings grabbed Kendricks. Both guys are established already as their men in the middle. San Diego took Perriman in the second round.
Thompson did select an inside linebacker at the end of round four, with Jake Ryan as the 129th pick. Ryan (6-2, 240) struggled as a rookie, especially in coverage where he was embarrassed at times by backs running routes.
He did, however, improve as the season went on, and he looks like a guy who can help stop the run. That’s Barrington’s forte also. Neither, however, appears natural as a cover guy, and can be exposed in the passing game by teams with good tight ends and receiving backs. Week one will bring Julius Thomas from Jacksonville.
This year, Thompson again bypassed inside linebacker in both free agency and the early rounds of the draft. Like Ryan last year in the end of round four, Thompson used a late pick in round four (131th overall) on an inside linebacker, Blake Martinez from Stanford (6-2, 237).
Ironically, both guys were rated 5.3 by the NFL.com scouting service, as you can see clicking the links on the two players above.
Martinez, however, appears to be much better in coverage. He seems like he could be a guy who can become a fixture in there, with the versatility to stay on the field all three downs. Again, they’ve barely practiced yet in pads, much less play preseason games or regular season games. So there’s a long way to go to know exactly what the Packers have there.
Third year backer Carl Bradford remains a mystery, an enigma. He was a beast of a pass rusher at Arizona State in the Pac-12. He reminded me of a longer-haired passionate James Harrison as a firey guy, relentless, coming off the edge. I liked the player, but the Packers needed in inside linebacker.
“I don’t think he’s long enough to be an edge pass-rush guy in the NFL. There is lots of hustle and he has a great motor. This kid went to the NFL Scouting Combine and showed athleticism. But what’s his best position? I think inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Green Bay just took him and that’s where I see him.” — Mike Mayock
They, and local media, assumed they had drafted Bradford to play inside. But Thompson and defensive coordinator Dom Capers said no, that they drafted him to play outside.
But he failed to distinguish himself in year one with the Packers at all, so instead of cutting the 2014 fourth round, 121st overall, pick, they kept him and began converting him to inside. Again, Bradford was rated a 5.3 by the NFL.com scouting.
All that you just read about Bradford (6-1, 250) is more than you’ve seen of or heard from him in his career with the Packers, now entering his third season. Most people won’t even mention him because he’d done absolutely nothing. He doesn’t say anything about football on his own Twitter page.
I was a huge fan of Carl at ASU and thought he could become a James Harrison edge-rusher. I also thought he could become a Junior Seau type passionate, high energy inside linebacker. Or at least similar to Desmond Bishop.
I thought last year, when the inside linebacking play was so bad after Sam went out, that the Packers should have force-fed Bradford out there. Let him show what he has, learn on the fly. Surely he might have made some mistakes, but so do young quarterbacks, receivers, and defensive backs.
So now we enter the preseason, and we have no idea at all how Bradford will perform on the field.
Barrington is still hobbled by his foot injury that ended his season in week one last year. He might never be the same, and he was never the speedy linebacker before that. Hopefully he will bounce back and show the same skills Packer fans started to love in 2014.
By default, due to his injury, it appears that the starting duo will be Ryan and Martinez, at least to begin this evaluation period in August. Things can change.
Let’s hope it’s their play in the preseason games, five of them, as well as practices, that determine who opens up in Jacksonville. Remember, that is a very good offense with weapons wide and in the slot, and a hard running back in Chris Ivory, plus the young Yeldon. That will be an immediate test.
Of course, the game after that is in Minnesota, which is perhaps the most important matchup of the season, with Adrian Peterson coming at them.
So Packer fans, watch closely these five preseason games, and see how #50 Martinez, #47 Ryan, #54 Bradford, #48 Joe Thomas (6-1, 227), and #43, rookie Beniquez Brown 6-1, 236) fare in the middle, especially covering tight ends and running backs.
I would not be surprised to see Brown, the undrafted rookie, beat out Bradford and Thomas for a spot on this team. He’s a natural inside backer, who led Mississippi State in tackles each of the past two seasons. His college (SEC) credentials at inside linebacker surpass everyone on the roster aside from Martinez.
If the Packers are going to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2010 season, someone is going to have to emerge there, as Bishop did that season.
It begins now.