Not since the days of Nick Barnett, AJ Hawk and Desmond Bishop have the Green Bay Packers had a reliable playmaker at the middle linebacker position. As the proliferation of spread offenses continues to grow in the National Football League, many would argue the necessity of having top tier talent at the position has lessened. I would vehemently disagree. Look no further than our division rival Chicago Bears, or the early decade San Francisco 49ers, for a lesson in how a middle linebacker can change an entire defense. The Packers should look to change the type of player at the heart of their defense, starting with the 2019 NFL Draft.
As the difference between linebackers and safeties blurs in modern football, linebackers have naturally gotten smaller and faster. The best players at the position now must-have the ability to stack and shed blockers and run with tight ends down the seam. They have to track receivers on end arounds and possess the intelligence to stay in passing lanes on the run-pass option plays sweeping through the league. Since former Michigan Wolverine Jake Ryan is a free agent, reinforcements are needed to solidify the middle of the defense.
For many years, the Packers have lacked what I like to call an eraser on the 2nd level on their defense. Elite defenses at the NFL level all have at least one player in the middle of the field that can read and react quickly to what the offense does, and make up for the mistakes of his counterparts. Similiar to say a Derwin James, who can come and clean up a running play, track a slot receiver, or tackle an offensive playmaker on a screen in space. These players can track down plays from the backside, wrap up and halt the offense in their tracks. Ultimately, these erasers’ are often the difference between forcing an offense to punt from their own side of the field, or maintaining a lengthy drive which leads to points. I can’t tell you how many times I noticed James make plays on 3rd down to get his defense off the field this past season. The inability to get off the field on 3rd downs has become a constant theme for the Packers defense in recent years. One of the problems with Dom Capers’ defense was he was never able to adapt to the ever changing landscape of NFL offenses. In this new-age of NFL football, the Packers defense urgently needs to acquire this type of playmaker. During the 2019 NFL Draft, the Packers should look no further than University of Washington linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven.
Ideally, a contemporary middle linebacker can track runners in space, have the ability to sift through traffic at the point of attack and find the ball carrier, and the instincts to stay at home against play fakes and run-pass options. Burr-Kirven can do it all. At 6 feet tall, 230 pounds he’s not your dads’ type of mike backer, nor is he particularly strong at the point of attack. He is however, extremely quick in space and aggressive while taking good angles to the football. BBK frequently identifies the areas where offenses are looking to attack on any given play and beats blockers to the ball-carrier. He will never be the type of player to take on a Quenton Nelson and win in the hole. Despite that, he does possess the ability to slip through and around multiple blockers in traffic and attack the football. He is gifted with the indispensable mentally to not only make the stop, but aggressively strike at the ball, and is always looking to make impact plays for his defense. As demonstrated by his four forced fumbles this past season.
Burr-Kirven’s instincts are off the charts, as he continually is able to track the football and make plays all over the field. The 2018 Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year is able to diagnose and close on the football quickly. An integral trait for any middle linebacker in the NFL. Importantly, he is able to get outside and repeatedly destroy screens and jet sweeps before they even have time to begin. This is high level defensive play in today’s NFL as super spread offenses always look for ways to widen and attack the defense horizontally. In coverage, he understands zone responsiblities and is frequently able to jump routes. Adding Burr-Kirven would be a significant step in the Packers ability to shut down crossing routes and the tight ends that always seems to plague the defense.
Ben Burr-Kirven is a high motor player, who loves to run and hit and does an excellent job covering distance quickly. He has been remarkably well coached at the University of Washington, and crucially as a middle linebacker, understands the responsibility of every player on his team. Time and time again on his tape, you’ll see #25 attack a gap to take on multiple blockers, allowing his fellow linebackers and friends to clean up the play. His high-level football intelligence and instincts project to BBK having success at the next level. The 2nd team All-Americans’ physicality and aggressiveness will serve him well in the NFL, and he is exactly the type of player the Green Bay Packers should be targeting in this years’ draft.Nick is a lifelong Packers fan. 4th and 26 was on his 13th birthday, unlucky. Follow him @CANDRAFTGEEK647 on Twitter for all your Packers draft needs and questions.