Inside Linebacker has been a significant issue for the Green Bay Packers for several seasons. The inability of the position to contain the scrambling of Quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, and cover Tight Ends and Running Backs in the passing game has cost the Packers in important moments of important games over the last several seasons.
The injury to Sam Barrington put the brakes on what seemed like a promising start to the season, but the inability of Ted Thompson to find depth on the inside has forced Clay Matthews to play out of position for the last season and a half. If the goal is to move Clay back outside, the Packers will need to address the position early in the draft.
The existing depth chart looks very uncertain. Barrington will have to show that he can recover from his foot injury. Nate Palmer and Jake Ryan need to take a step forward after each had an up-and-down season. Joe Thomas was solid on passing downs, but will have to show improvement just to make the roster. Carl Bradford seems to be longshot to make the team after spending last season on the practice squad.
Ted Thompson does not have a long history of taking Inside Linebackers high in the draft. Of course, in Thompson’s second draft as General Manager he took AJ Hawk with the 5th pick overall. Since then he has drafted Desmond Bishop in the 6th round in 2007, Brad Jones in the 7th round in 2009, DJ Smith in the 6th round in 2011, and Terrell Manning in the 5th round in 2012. In 2013, Thompson took Nate Palmer in the 6th and Sam Barrington in the 7th, in 2014 he picked Carl Bradford in the 4th, and last year Jake Ryan was drafted in the 4th round. As a result, there seems to be a direct correlation between the weakness of the position and the lack of emphasis the Packers have placed on it.
What is equally as concerning is the lack of depth in the 2016 NFL draft at Inside Linebacker. The clear cut number one player at the position is Alabama’s Reggie Ragland. Ragland is a hard-nosed, highly intelligent player, and you can hear the hits he makes on tape. He is highly disciplined, will hit the run lanes that are his responsibility, and will be assignment-sure in zone coverage. He also provides position flexibility as he has shown the ability to play Outside Linebacker and rush the passer.
Scouts will question Ragland’s speed on the field, but his instincts and preparation can make up for much of that. My main concern with Ragland is his ability to cover Tight Ends and Running Backs in man-to-man coverage, which was already established as a problem for the current Packers. Ragland also would likely be off the board at pick 27, so Thompson would have to trade up to have the chance to draft Ragland, something the Packers GM has done infrequently in the past.
Scooby Wright III will be a player who gets a lot of varying grades from teams. He is a below average athlete, but it does not show on his tape. Wright has incredible instincts and a tenacity that is unmatched in college football. Scooby (nicknamed by his father) had one of the best seasons ever by a collegiate Linebacker in 2014, but missed most of the 2015 season with a torn lateral meniscus and sprained foot. One AFC East Scout compared Wright to former Dolphins Linebacker Zach Thomas. My personal comparison would be Vontaze Burfict of the Bengals (without the personal foul issues).
Florida’s Antonio Morrison provides another intriguing player for the Packers to consider in the first two rounds. The terms intensity and attack mode are used constantly in evaluations of Morrison. In many ways he contrasts the styles of Ragland and Wright. He is very athletically gifted and intense on the field. This leads to incredible plays, and at times, being out of position. Lack of strength is a concern in running situations. Morrison was used frequently as a spy on running quarterbacks and has shown the ability to cover Tight Ends and Running Backs. He will play to the whistle on every snap.
Morrison did suffer a significant injury at the end of his 2014 season, and underwent surgeries to repair his left knee. He also had two arrests as an undergraduate at Florida, so teams will have to investigate his background thoroughly.
Other Inside Linebackers to watch in the mid rounds of the draft are Terrance Smith of Florida State, Jared Norris of Utah, Blake Martinez of Stanford, and Joshua Perry of Ohio State.
The Packers appear to be in a need of a significant upgrade at Inside Linebacker, and it will likely require Ted Thompson to go outside of his comfort zone to improve the position by either signing a free agent or taking a player high in the draft.