The Green Bay Packers started the new league year with a bang, signing four starters in key positions of need. After signing safety Adrian Amos, linebackers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, and offensive lineman Billy Turner in the opening days of free agency madness, Brian Gutekunst has earned himself a beer from his garage fridge.
By signing young, rising players the Packers filled key roster spots and created breathing room for the upcoming draft. Green Bay can feel confident in truly taking a “best player available” approach this year. This freedom comes with a cost, however, as signing these players means costs need to be cut elsewhere. In this case, sacrifices were made at the inside linebacker position, an already thin group.
In a cost-cutting move, the Packers released Antonio Morrison, who they acquired in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts after losing Jake Ryan to a torn ACL. Ryan himself just signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. This leaves Blake Martinez, Oren Burks, and James Crawford as the only current off-ball linebackers on the roster. Further muddying waters is that Martinez will be a free agent next year, and Green Bay might be unwilling or unable to pay him after seeing Kwon Alexander sign a market-setting four-year, $54 million deal.
Your mileage may vary on the value of the position, but the Green Bay Packers need someone capable of manning that area of the field. What options do the Packers have to solidify the inside linebacker position?
The first, and most obvious, solution is to use the draft. Signing two edge rushers in free agency means Green Bay can be more flexible in the early rounds, and this draft has two potential first-round backers in Devin White (LSU) and Devin Bush (Michigan). Both Devins would immediately challenge Oren Burks for the number two spot. The questions here are whether Green Bay would even consider using a pick this high on an off-ball linebacker or whether either would be available when the Packers are on the clock.
White has been heavily linked to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at pick five, as well as Cincinnati at 11 (one ahead of Green Bay’s first selection). The Packers could likely land Bush (the better of the two anyway) at 12, but if they choose to wait until 30, other teams may beat them to the punch.
The Packers could still likely find a solution after Day 1. Mack Wilson (Alabama), Joe Giles-Harris (Duke), and Blake Cashman (Minnesota) would all be intriguing Day 2 options.
Now that the initial splash has simmered, the Packers could also look to free agency to add depth to the position. It’s unlikely that they will, however. Ryan was at least serviceable and Green Bay probably won’t find a player of his level for a reasonable cost. Anyone Green Bay finds is likely to be a camp body or special teamer.
The Packers could consider signing Clay Matthews as an inside linebacker, a role he spent significant time at in 2014, depending on Matthews market and desire to give the Packers a discount. But Matthews isn’t the same player he was in 2014 and the Gutekunst-era Packers are looking to get younger and faster across the board.
Finally, the Packers could do what they’ve often done when it comes to inside linebacker: absolutely nothing. In the last ten years, the Packers have only spent one top-100 pick on an off-ball linebacker: Oren Burks. Despite a rough rookie year, Burks could develop into a star. There’s a reason Gutekunst traded up for him. Mike Pettine isn’t afraid to play three-safety sets either. With the defense often playing in subpackages, the Packers might feel they don’t need many inside linebackers. The Packers could feel better about the position going forward than I do and focus their attention elsewhere.
The Gutekunst regime is still young and we have no inside source on how he views the inside linebacker position. But the Packers’ general manager put himself in a good position with free agency, and the doors of the draft are wide open for anything.Matt Hendershott is a Packers fan and Miller High Life enthusiast from Northwest Ohio. He has a Master of Arts in Media and Communication from Bowling Green State University. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHendershott.