This was an offseason full of change for the Green Bay Packers and that includes a number of new faces on the defensive side of the ball.
GM Brian Gutekunst would spend big bucks in free agency to bring in EDGE rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, as well as safety Adrian Amos. Then in the draft, the Packers would spend the 12th overall pick on EDGE rusher Rashan Gary and trade up to grab safety Darnell Savage.
While all five of these players will likely be huge factors in 2019, it is second-year inside linebacker Oren Burks that can solidify this Packers’ defense as a dominant unit this upcoming season.
Drafted in the third round of the 2018 NFL draft out of Vanderbilt, Burks was off to a promising start last summer before a shoulder injury would cause him to miss the final two preseason games as well as the first two games of the regular season.
That missed time would set Burks back greatly as he would end up playing in only 11.5 percent of the total defensive snaps that season.
As a former college safety, Burks was very good in coverage during his time at Vanderbilt which had to be a deciding factor in Green Bay’s decision to trade up and draft him.
However, at the NFL level where everything moves faster and offenses are constantly using motions, play fakes and shifts, Burks would struggle in his limited playing time.
Now entering his second season in the league, the Green Bay Packers have put their faith in Burks and if he can make that year two jump, he will play a major role in taking this defense to the next level.
First off, Green Bay just isn’t that deep at inside linebacker, at least when it comes to experience. Behind Blake Martinez and Burks is 2018 special teams standout James Crawford, along with rookies Ty Summers and Curtis Bolton.
At this point we just don’t know how effective any of those three linebackers would be on defense and I don’t anticipate them brining the same coverage abilities to the table that Burks does.
And if Burks struggles once again, the Packers could find themselves with a pretty big hole at inside linebacker.
Next, we have to take a look at what Burks brings to this defense. At 6’3″ – 233 pounds with 4.59 speed, he has the athleticism and versatility that Pettine covets from his defenders.
His ability to move sideline to sideline while being able to stick with running backs and tight ends will shrink the field for the offense and take away matchup concerns that the Packers have had in the past.
Last season defensive coordinator Mike Pettine would plug in a safety next to Blake Martinez in passing situations, but Burks gives him a player with a linebackers’ body but the speed, athleticism and coverage abilities of a safety.
This would give Green Bay more consistent size on the field which will pay dividends in the running game, as well as free up other players to come on blitzes that Pettine has schemed up.
If Burks can show that he can be a three-down linebacker, what he brings to the table will greatly benefit the defense and play a big role in the overall improvement.
I’ve been able to attend three Training Camp practices so far and have seen some very good plays from Burks. He has filled the gaps nicely on a couple of running plays and has been all over running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams in one-on-one drills which included an interception.
However, Burks has shown a lack of consistency as well and head coach Matt LaFleur had this to say after Tuesday’s practice:
“He’s a really talented player, but I still think there’s a lot of room for growth there.” LaFleur would also add, “He’s had some really good plays and then there’s been some plays where you need better. The thing with him is consistency. He’s got the talent, he’s a great kid, he works his tail off, he’s a smart guy. It’s just about bringing it every day.”
If Burks can take a big step forward this year as we all hope, he will be an important part of this Packers’ defense. With that said, Burks has a number of improvements that need to be made before he will be trusted with more playing time and coverage responsibilities.