GREEN BAY – Linebacker James Crawford wasn’t even in Green Bay at this time last year.
In fact, he didn’t arrive until Aug. 8, no less than 10 practices into training camp and the day before the first preseason game.
Yet Crawford, an undrafted rookie from Illinois in 2018, still managed to make the 53-man roster out of camp by proving to be a quick study on special teams. Practically overnight, he became a dynamo in the game’s third phase, leading the Packers in an otherwise down year on special teams with 13 coverage tackles and a fumble recovery.
In that context, it comes as no surprise that with a full offseason to learn defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s playbook, and get snaps on the practice field throughout OTAs, that Crawford is starting to show up again.
Earlier this week during the Packers’ public practice, Crawford slipped out into the flat in pass coverage, made a break on the ball, and picked off backup QB Tim Boyle’s poorly thrown pass.
He was off to the races, and the second-year pro is off to a heck of a start in trying to nail down a roster spot once again. This time he’s making waves as a more viable option on defense at inside linebacker, working with the second string behind starters Blake Martinez and Oren Burks.
“I’ve just got to, first off, do my job, which I did, and then just catch the ball when they throw it to us,” Crawford said in describing his highlight-reel interception. “So I just capitalized on that. It’s not my first one.”
The Packers were on the practice field Tuesday afternoon for the offseason program.
No, it’s not. Crawford picked off a pass in the open practice during Week 2 of OTAs as well.
Having tried both inside and outside linebacker last season, Crawford is settling in at the inside position and making the coaches’ long-awaited choice pay off. Inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti noted the better place to learn the defense is from the inside.
“You have to be in on the coverage, in on the front and know what’s going on pretty much everywhere around you,” Olivadotti said. “I think that’s an advantage for him.”
As is just being in on all the spring meetings he missed a year ago while he was trying to find a team. He went unsigned until the Packers called, and showing up nearly two full weeks into camp, he was behind the 8-ball from the very start of his pro career.
“Last year I came in and was expected to know the playbook without even seeing the playbook,” he said, half-jokingly. “But I mean, this is definitely a blessing to be here around this time to get a little more comfortable in the system before I have to go out there and perform.”
Fortunately, trying different positions was nothing new, as his college career in the Big Ten progressed from playing safety to linebacker to defensive end. He also knew plenty about special teams, having worked on all four core units his first two years at Illinois but still staying involved when his defensive snaps increased and he became a team captain.
This year, he’s soaking up all the X’s and O’s he can and taking the coaching staff’s emphasis on turnovers seriously. He’s just done so very quietly, as is his nature. It was the rest of his teammates making all the noise on the practice field during his big interception this past week.
“He’s a very diligent guy. He’s a very prideful guy. He tries to make sure he knows everything,” Olivadotti said. “He’s soft spoken, so I always have to ask him the questions so I can get him to talk in the meetings and then he’ll smile at me, ‘Hey, I know this. We’re good.’ He’s been fun to be around.”
No notable addition at inside linebacker this offseason was made until the seventh round of the draft with the selection of TCU’s Ty Summers. That leaves the depth chart behind Martinez and Burks wide open, even with the hybrid safeties Pettine likes to deploy in that spot on occasion.
It’s an opportunity far better than the last-minute one Crawford got 10 months ago, frankly, which he more than maximized. This time, he’s actually got some odds in his favor.
“I never doubt myself. I know who I am,” he said. “It’s just time for myself to show everybody else who I am.”