GREEN BAY – Jake Ryan departed Green Bay following the 2018 season with maybe as uncertain a future as any Packers player.
The year was lost due to an ACL injury in his knee, and plenty of rehab remained. It was also the final year of his rookie contract.
But the generally quiet and reserved Ryan is preaching patience in 2019. One step at a time is all the inside linebacker can take.
"You never know what's going to happen," Ryan said the day after the season ended, regarding his future.
Missing his fourth NFL season was admittedly difficult, his contract status notwithstanding. The 2015 fourth-round pick out of Michigan had been through an ACL injury before, as a junior year in college, getting hurt in spring practice but returning to the field by mid-October and to the Wolverines' defensive starting lineup the following month.
By all accounts he recovered well, and Ryan followed it up with an All-Big Ten senior season in 2014 heading into the draft. But he ended 2018 feeling no rush with his rehab this time, knowing he needs to prove he's fully healthy before anyone, whether it's the Packers or another team, will sign him.
"Just be patient," he said of his approach, despite the uncertainty. "Honestly, in college, I pushed my rehab and pushed everything. This go-round with this ACL is different. I'm just going to stay patient with it. I have a path I want to go on right now, so I'm going to focus on that."
When the season ended, Ryan was headed out to California to work with a trainer to continue his physical therapy, and go from there.
Up until the day in training camp last summer he went down with the knee injury, he was looking like he'd be a regular alongside Blake Martinez on defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's unit. The previous two years, Ryan had started double-digit games and recorded 80-plus tackles both seasons.
His injury, combined with a shoulder injury to rookie third-round draft pick Oren Burks in the preseason, prompted the Packers to acquire Antonio Morrison in a trade with the Colts to bolster the inside linebacker group late in camp. A fourth-round pick one year after Ryan, Morrison played in every game, starting half of them, and tallied 42 tackles. He has one year left on his rookie deal.
So does Martinez, who led the team in tackles for a second straight year and became an effective blitzer for Pettine, racking up a career-high five sacks.
With Martinez, Morrison and Burks, along with versatile option and special teamer James Crawford, all slated to return in 2019, where Ryan might fit in Green Bay is tough to figure. Then again, the Packers know him better than anyone, and proven depth never hurts.
Ryan takes nothing away from what the Packers appear to be building at the position, especially with Martinez's continued rise. What it means for him he can't say, other than emphasizing his desire to get back on the field again, which is what drives his rehab.
"I love watching my guys succeed. Blake had a tremendous year again," Ryan said. "But watching from the sideline is tough just because you love the game so much, and having a year off of it is hard. I had six months off in college and that was tough enough, but this is definitely a hard go-round."
The reward at the end of the road will be a healthy knee and, hopefully, a chance to play again. However it unfolds, he's counting on his patience paying off.
"It was tough, watching from the sideline, watching from the training room, to be honest," Ryan said. "But you know what? You learn a lot form losses, you learn a lot from tough seasons. You just have to move on and focus on next year."