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Christian Kirksey wants to put his name back on the NFL map

With injuries behind him, new Packers linebacker hopes for a “Cinderella story” in Green Bay

LB Christian Kirksey
LB Christian Kirksey

GREEN BAY – For everything Christian Kirksey has accomplished through his first six NFL seasons, there's still so much more the Packers' new inside linebacker wants to achieve.

For starters, Kirksey has yet to experience what it feels like to play on a winning team. He weathered a slew of coaching changes and four different defensive systems with the Cleveland Browns but had only a 24-71-1 cumulative record to show for it.

So it was rather eye-opening when the 27-year-old linebacker sat down for a virtual team meeting earlier in the offseason and listened to Head Coach Matt LaFleur talk about how the Packers will be one of the hunted in 2020 following a 14-win season that concluded in the NFC Championship Game.

"I'm excited to be a part of that," said Kirksey, recounting that story during a Zoom call with Green Bay media Wednesday. "I was revved up because I've never been a part of that."

Individually, Kirksey is also out to prove he can reassert himself as one of the game's premier inside linebackers. Prior to season-ending hamstring and chest injuries that limited him to only nine games the past two seasons, Kirksey racked up 278 tackles, eight pass deflections and six sacks without missing a game with the Browns in 2016-17. At only 25, he was voted a team captain.

While he didn't enter the offseason necessarily looking for a fresh start, those were the cards he was dealt when the Browns released him on March 10.

Cleared from the pec injury that sidelined him after only two games in 2019, Kirksey took a visit and signed with the Packers a week later. The move reunited him with former Browns head coach and current Green Bay defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who was in need of a new key communicator after Blake Martinez signed with the New York Giants this offseason.

Kirksey managed to get his deal with Green Bay done just before national stay-at-home orders went into effect to battle the current COVID-19 pandemic. He's spent the rest of his offseason training at home in hopes of a comeback season.

"I want to get back to playing great football," Kirksey said. "Re-establishing myself and getting my name back out there and letting people know Christian Kirksey is back, Christian Kirksey is a great linebacker in this league. That's what I'm shooting for.

"For those who may have slept on me or said, 'Oh, he's injury prone,' or 'He's not the same player he used to be,' I'm here to prove them wrong and prove to myself that I've still got what it takes to be one of the best linebackers in the league."

Kirksey's background in Pettine's defense has served him well during his short time with the Packers. Despite a four-year layoff from Pettine's scheme, Kirksey opened the playbook and felt back at home aside from a little new terminology.

Pettine told Green Bay reporters last month neither he nor the organization had any reservations regarding Kirksey's recent string of injuries. It's their hope the two unrelated episodes are nothing more than a blip on the radar for a linebacker who personified durability during his first four seasons in Cleveland, a stretch in which he played 64 consecutive games.

"I just think it was a great signing for us for a lot of reasons," Pettine said. "We're not just bringing a really good player into the room. This is a guy who has great leadership ability. He already has a head start on learning the system.

"Certainly, it's a risk when you look at it but it was a risk that we were more than willing to take. We're excited about it."

While the Packers' offseason program has been entirely online, Kirksey said he has had a chance to meet left tackle David Bakhtiari in-person, and has enjoyed getting to know Preston Smith and his fellow linebackers over Zoom calls.

As disappointing as last year was, Kirksey maintains his position that everything happens for a reason. He rehabbed from surgery to repair his pectoral muscle, spent time with his daughter following her birth in December and now feels he's fallen into a great situation with the Packers.

Mentally, Kirksey feels he's sharper than ever and expects to be in the best shape of his career whenever the Packers reconvene for training camp. Once that happens, he hopes winning is soon to follow.

"When I look back at it, I can say if I could have done anything differently up to the point where I got hurt, I would have said no," Kirksey said. "I trained. I thought I was in the best shape of my life going into the season and it just was an unfortunate injury that I had, but it was something I couldn't control.

"I'm excited that I'm feeling good. My pec is back. I got cut and got picked up by a great team. It couldn't have happened in a better way, almost feels like a Cinderella story."