Countdown to Camp: Linebacker groups have different makeups

LB Preston Smith
LB Preston Smith

This is the seventh in a series of stories examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to training camp. The series continues with the linebackers.

GREEN BAY – No position on the Packers’ roster got a bigger makeover this past offseason than outside linebacker.

Meanwhile, the team is counting on improvement at inside linebacker to come from within.

General Manager Brian Gutekunst’s top priority in the offseason was to bolster the pass rush for coordinator Mike Pettine’s unit, and he addressed it both through free agency and the draft.

Gutekunst chose not to re-sign Clay Matthews and Nick Perry and instead brought in Za'Darius Smith from Baltimore and Preston Smith from Washington. Then he used his first draft pick, No. 12 overall, on Rashan Gary from Michigan.

The Smiths and Gary give the Packers more size at the position than they’ve had in recent memory and join fourth-year pro Kyler Fackrell, coming off a career-best 10½ sacks, to form the primary quartet at outside linebacker for coordinator Mike Pettine in his second year running the Packers’ defense.

The following is the seventh installment in a series of photos examining the Packers' roster position by position. This installment examines the linebackers.

Za’Darius Smith (6-4, 272) led Baltimore’s top-ranked defense a year ago (the Ravens finished first in yards allowed, second in points allowed) with 8½ sacks, a career high for him which the Packers are projecting is just the beginning of his prime. Preston Smith (6-5, 265) has a pair of eight-sack seasons to his credit from the first four years of his career with Washington, over which the durable and versatile defender never missed a game.

Both players tallied pressure numbers, according to Pro Football Focus, substantially higher than any of Green Bay’s outside linebackers last year. Za’Darius Smith was credited with 60 pressures (combined sacks, hits and hurries), including five or more in six different games. His total was the most of any player in the league with less than 700 snaps. Preston Smith’s 53 pressures ranked in the top 25 in the league despite his sack total dropping to four.

Gary comes to the Packers as one of the top players on one of the nation’s best defenses, where his Michigan film showed constant disruption and drawing of double teams despite just 10½ career college sacks. It isn’t lost on him that he’ll be wearing Matthews’ No. 52 in Green Bay, either.

Fackrell (6-5, 245) turned in a career year thanks to a pair of three-sack games against Buffalo and Seattle. He also had a career-high 52 tackles while playing in all 16 games, starting seven. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, the former third-round pick from Utah State will be out to show he’s just getting started and hasn’t peaked yet.

The other outside linebacker with regular-season experience is Reggie Gilbert (6-3, 261), a 2016 undrafted find from Arizona who had 44 tackles and 2½ sacks, playing in all 16 games as a reserve after making the 53-man roster out of camp for the first time.

Developmental prospects on the edge include last year’s seventh-round pick Kendall Donnerson (6-3, 249), who began his rookie season on the practice squad and was signed to the 53 in December but was a game-day inactive the rest of the way.

Undrafted rookies Greg Roberts (6-5, 258) from Baylor and Randy Ramsey (6-3, 238) from Arkansas round out the outside group. Roberts earned honorable mention All-Big 12 last season. Ramsey played some defensive line for the Razorbacks as well and had 8½ college sacks.

On the inside, fourth-year pro Blake Martinez  (6-2, 237) is the unquestioned leader and key communicator for Pettine. His tackle totals from the last two years (158 in 2017, 147 in 2018) jump off the page, and the former fourth-round pick from Stanford boosted his sack total to a career-best five last season.

Entering a contract year, Martinez bulked up and leaned up for 2019 and will be looking to add more turnover plays (two interceptions, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries over three years) to take the next step in his career.

The rest of the inside linebacker group is largely young and unproven.

All eyes will be on 2018 third-round draft pick Oren Burks, as he took the bulk of the first-team reps alongside Martinez this spring. A converted safety from Vanderbilt, Burks (6-3, 233) has all the smarts and athleticism required, but his rookie year stalled due to a shoulder injury in preseason. His regular-season contributions were mainly on special teams, but the opportunity to become a defensive regular is there for him to seize.

The second inside pair during OTAs and minicamp featured James Crawford and Brady Sheldon.

An undrafted rookie from Illinois and late arrival to training camp a year ago, Crawford made the team, working at both inside and outside linebacker and leading the Packers on special teams with 13 coverage tackles and a fumble recovery. In spring practices open to the media, Crawford made multiple standout plays with the second-team defense and is settling in as an inside linebacker in his second season.

Sheldon (6-5, 231) was signed to the practice squad last November, his third practice squad in two years after similar stints with Oakland and Cleveland.

The new additions are seventh-round pick Ty Summers from Texas Christian and undrafted rookie Curtis Bolton from Oklahoma. A former high school quarterback, Summers (6-1, 241) built himself into one of the top tacklers ever on Gary Patterson’s TCU defense and knows special teams will be a key avenue to playing time as a rookie. Bolton (6-0, 228) didn’t become a starter until his final season with the Sooners but earned honorable mention All-Big 12, averaging 10 tackles per game.

COUNTDOWN TO CAMP SERIES

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