GREEN BAY – The Packers have had big plans for Oren Burks since the day they selected the former Vanderbilt linebacker in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Heralded for his athleticism and high football IQ, Burks was penciled in as a starting inside linebacker entering each of his first two training camps in Green Bay, only to have preseason shoulder and chest injuries sideline him for the start of each regular season.
The torn pectoral Burks sustained in last year's preseason opener against Houston was especially maddening. Uncertain whether he needed surgery at first, Burks had to wait several weeks for the swelling to go down and ultimately opted against surgery after seeking a second opinion.
The 6-foot-3, 233-pound linebacker returned to the field in October and played in 12 games the rest of the season, primarily on special teams. But after devoting the offseason to strengthening his pec and range of motion, Burks feels primed for a breakout season in his third go-around in Green Bay.
"This is the best I've felt in a long time, physically," Burks said. "Just have to keep things rolling, staying on my maintenance, on top of making sure everything feels strong and fresh. Just feeling really good about this year."
Coincidentally, Burks is now the longest-tenured linebacker on the Packers' roster following the departures of Blake Martinez and Kyler Fackrell in free agency.
The landscape remains largely similar for Burks as his first two summers in Green Bay. He's once again taking reps with the first-team defense, only this time it's alongside free-agent acquisition Christian Kirksey instead of Martinez.
To prepare for a pivotal third year, Burks worked with personal trainer Josh Cuthbert in Nashville to rebuild the strength in his pectoral muscle. As his body felt better, so too did his mind.
"I feel like with more and more reps I get, the more confident I get," Burks said. "There's no words I can put forth to express to you guys how excited I am for this year. It's just going to be the culmination of putting all the preparation in place, and just playing fast and confident."
Practice snapshots from Green Bay's Aug. 18, 2020, training-camp practice.
Burks has enjoyed his first three practices working with Kirksey, a seventh-year pro with more than 50 career starts on his NFL resume. He's taken notice of how proficient Kirksey is in relaying calls and the aggression he plays with on the field.
At the same time, Burks knows nothing is going to be handed to him this summer. There are several other young and hungry inside linebackers competing for roles, including second-year pro Ty Summers and rookie fifth-round pick Kamal Martin.
The Packers like what they've seen from Burks so far, though.
"We've had high expectations for him and everybody else in that room, but I really think he's got a better understanding of what we're trying to get accomplished," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "And now it's up to him to put it all together, to go out and to compete each and every day and put it on the practice tape so it can transition over to game day."
Burks smiles when revisiting his "crazy offseason," but he's excited for what the rest of 2020 has to offer. It could've been easy to get down after a pair of summertime setbacks, but Burks has maintained positivity through the process.
He's thankful to his parents and wife, Jocelyn, for pulling him through the dark times and plans to use his past setbacks as motivation to prove he's still a big part of the Packers' future at the inside linebacker position.
"It's definitely tough to kind of get started with the season with a major setback, but I've always had the mindset to continue to grow and continue to get better, find ways to add value to the team," Burks said.
"Never use that as an excuse, always trying to work on my game, whether that's in the film room, helping out my football IQ, and once again, just adding value to the team wherever I can. This year I'm really excited to get back out there and continue to stay healthy."