A new era begins for Packers at outside linebacker

Blake Martinez, OLB
Blake Martinez, OLB

This is the sixth in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to the 2019 NFL Draft. The series continues with the linebackers.

GREEN BAY – It’s been an offseason of change for the Packers at outside linebacker.

Pass-rushing stalwarts Clay Matthews and Nick Perry have given way to free-agent additions Za’Darius and Preston Smith, while Kyler Fackrell returns after a 10½-sack season.

With Perry missing half the season with injuries, Fackrell emerged as the Packers’ top pass rusher in 2018. His breakout included two three-sack performances, in Week 4 against Buffalo and Week 11 in Seattle.

The former third-round pick, who had five sacks in his first two NFL seasons, finished the regular season with sacks in three consecutive games to become only the fourth pass rusher to record double-digit sacks since Green Bay switched to a 3-4 defense in 2009.

Za’Darius Smith enjoyed a comparable breakthrough campaign in Baltimore, posting career-highs with 45 tackles and a team-high 8½ sacks, to become one of the league’s top free agents.

Preston Smith didn’t have the sack totals of Za’Darius but has been one of the league’s most durable starting outside linebackers since entering the league in 2015. He’s yet to miss a game in four NFL seasons, registering 168 tackles, 24½ sacks, four forced fumbles and four interceptions.

Reggie Gilbert, who spent two seasons on Green Bay’s practice squad, had 38 tackles and 2½ sacks on 486 defensive snaps in his first full NFL season, while seventh-round pick Kendall Donnerson finished his rookie year on the active roster after receiving a call-up in December.

Blake Martinez remains a key cog for the Packers at inside linebacker. Serving as the primary communicator in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense, Martinez recorded 144 tackles and a career-high five sacks in 2018.

Martinez still wasn’t fully satisfied with how his third NFL season played out. Looking to add more muscle to his 6-foot-2 frame, Martinez added seven pounds and dropped 3.5-percent body fat this offseason.

The spot next to Martinez is up for grabs following the release of Antonio Morrison and Jake Ryan’s departure to Jacksonville as an unrestricted free agent.

Oren Burks, a third-round pick out of Vanderbilt, was positioned to start last season next to Martinez before injuring his shoulder in Oakland in the preseason. The Packers traded for Morrison during Burks’ one-month absence. Burks went on to play 122 defensive snaps and made four starts.

Speaking with reporters at the start of the offseason program, Martinez praised Burks as a “freak of nature.” A former defensive back, Burks projects as a coverage linebacker capable of defending tight ends and running backs.

Pettine also showed a penchant for using a hybrid linebacker next to Martinez in certain packages last year. Former second-round pick Josh Jones rotated at that spot until injuries moved him to the back end of the secondary down the stretch.

Undrafted free agent James Crawford, signed at the start of training camp, came out of nowhere to not only claim a spot on the Packers’ 53-man roster, but also lead Green Bay’s special teams with 13 coverage tackles and a fumble recovery.

At 6-2, 239, Crawford is a bit of a tweener. The Packers started Crawford at inside linebacker last season, but gave him more practice reps outside throughout the course of the year.

Another inside prospect the Packers have on the roster is 6-foot-5 Brady Sheldon, who was signed to the practice squad in early November. He possesses two games of NFL experience after finishing the 2017 season on Oakland’s 53-man roster.

Offseason departures have opened potential roster spots at both outside and inside linebacker that the Packers could potentially fill through this year’s draft.

Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, Kentucky’s Josh Allen and Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat are top-of-the-line edge rushers, while LSU’s Devin White and Michigan’s Devin Bush possess the necessary skill sets to be plug-and-play every-down inside linebackers.

The Packers haven’t drafted an outside linebacker in the first round since taking Nick Perry out of USC in 2012, and you’d have to flash back to A.J. Hawk in 2006 for the last time Green Bay has selected an inside linebacker in the opening round.

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