GREEN BAY – There’s one word that describes linebacker Oren Burks as he heads into his first NFL offseason.
The Packers’ third-round pick in 2018 used the word at least four times in a less-than-four-minute interview with packers.com on the day he cleaned out his locker at Lambeau Field.
It’s a reflection of both some disappointment in his rookie season and anticipation for his future. Burks planned on posting more than 15 tackles on defense this past year, but everything he learned about the speed of the game and the demands of the NFL can be put to good use as he matures as a pro.
Simply put, as a special-teams regular and part-time player from scrimmage, Burks doesn’t believe he showed as a rookie why the Packers drafted him out of Vanderbilt with the 88th overall selection last April. He makes no excuses and puts the onus on himself to live up to his draft status moving forward.
“I feel like that’s a pretty big piece, but even more, I want to prove it to myself,” he said. “I know what type of ball I’m capable of playing, and I’m feeling like I didn’t live up to my own expectations. I’m hungry to get back after it, to prove to myself, prove to the team, my worth.”
A shoulder injury in the third preseason game last August knocked Burks’ rookie season off track a bit. He missed the final week of training camp and the first two games of the regular season, getting back on the field in Week 3.
He cracked the starting lineup on defense in early October and got his most extensive playing time over the final two games before the bye, racking up seven tackles. But then his playing time from scrimmage diminished considerably post-bye and for the rest of the season as defensive coordinator Mike Pettine grew more comfortable pairing Blake Martinez with Antonio Morrison at inside linebacker to stop the run, or Martinez with a hybrid defensive back like Josh Jones in pass-defense packages.
Burks boiled down his reduced role to not playing fast enough, or not reacting fast enough to what was in front of him. The speed and athleticism are there for the 6-foot-3, 233-pounder, but to translate them fully to live action, his vision, confidence and physical tools all have to come together.
“Just being a little hesitant, and not believing what I’m seeing and going after it,” Burks said of what he feels held him back. “I just have to get confident in myself and the scheme and going after it with all I’ve got.
“I really feel like the stuff I see on film, that’s not the type of ball I’m used to playing. I want to get back to that.”
Burks did his job on special teams, finishing second on the team to linebacker James Crawford in coverage tackles with nine. As snaps on defense grew harder to come by, he appreciated the chance to stay on the field in that phase, but he was never satisfied.
To his advantage, Martinez owns the locker right next to Burks’, so the younger linebacker has a convenient and successful mentor to remain tuned into as his young career continues.
“He’s a smart guy,” Burks said. “He’s very precise about his craft and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. When he does, he corrects them and doesn’t let it happen again, that kind of thing. I learned a lot from him from that standpoint.”
He also learned that rookie years like his are not all that uncommon, and they don’t define a player’s career. Martinez played more as a rookie than Burks did, but he had to get physically stronger and mentally faster coming back for his second season, too.
“He shared a little about his rookie year, the ups and downs he went through and made that huge jump the second year,” Burks said. “That’s really reassuring for me to know if you put the work in, it’s going to pay off in the long run.
“He was really successful these last two years, a leader on the defense. I want to work with him and make sure we play the type of defense we’re capable of.”
With Pettine returning as coordinator, there should be less transition in Year 2, though Burks could have a new position coach. But he’s less focused on how that shakes out than the work he can do this winter and spring in the weight room and on his tablet – building his body with workouts and sharpening his mind with film study – to make the progress he needs and, frankly, craves.
“I feel like I got a taste of what I need to do this offseason to be ready to go when we come back for OTAs and get ready for the season,” he said. “I’m excited for the future. My best ball is ahead of me. I’m hungry. I’m hungry to get back at it.”
There’s that word again.