GREEN BAY – The breakout season started with a pen and a simple sheet of paper.
Sitting down with new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine during the Packers’ offseason program, Kyler Fackrell was asked to jot down his personal goals for the year.
Coming off a three-sack season as a rotational hand at edge rusher, the third-year linebacker again appeared destined to fill that role behind de facto starters Clay Matthews and Nick Perry.
However, that so-called reality didn’t stop Fackrell from setting the bar high for himself in targeting a double-digit sack season, setting the table for what will go down as one of the most improbable leaps the organization has seen from a defender in the modern era.
It was a lofty goal considering Fackrell only had five sacks over his first 29 NFL games. Not to mention the fact only three Green Bay defenders – Julius Peppers, Matthews and Perry – had registered at least 10 sacks in a season over the past decade.
Fackell wasn’t concerned with the odds, though. One way or another, the quiet and unassuming pass rusher wanted to make 2018 his year.
And he did, completing a 10½-sack campaign when he dropped Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford in the second quarter of the Packers’ regular-season finale a little more than a week ago.
“I mean, that’s what goals are supposed to do, is to kind of push you along, right?” said Fackrell, reflecting on his season last week. “I enjoy pass rushing, it’s something that I love to do and I believe I have the ability to be a great pass rusher.”
The likelihood of Fackrell achieving that goal seemed remote through the first three games of the season, barely playing in the opener against Chicago (four defensive snaps), Minnesota (13) and Washington (23).
It wasn’t until Fackrell busted out with three sacks on 26 snaps against Buffalo in Week 4 that the former third-round pick jumped onto everyone’s radar. With Perry battling knee and ankle issues that finally landed him on injured reserve on Nov. 24, Fackrell started the final seven games of the regular season.
He started that stretch off with a bang, too, in recording another three-sack performance in his first start of the season against Seattle in Week 11.
Coming out of Utah State in 2016, Fackell seemed like an ideal fit for the Packers’ 3-4 defense with an intriguing 6-foot-5 frame to develop and the necessary athleticism to drop into coverage.
Yet, Fackrell was often a prisoner of his own mind, overthinking and not playing instinctively during his first two NFL seasons. While he still can’t put his finger entirely on what clicked, Fackrell made it a point this season to just play football again.
“I wasn’t playing very much early in the season and I don’t know if I felt like I didn’t have anything to lose, but I was just like I’m not going to worry about making mistakes,” Fackrell said. “I’m not going to worry about that stuff. I’m just going to go and try and make plays and it worked out.”
If there is one skill Fackrell mastered early in his NFL career, it has been tuning out the noise and naysayers. He doesn’t participate in social media and stays away from Packers forums.
That same strategy applies for when things are going well, too. Now one of the brightest stars on a young defense, Fackrell isn’t buying into his own hype.
Even at 27, he sees potential areas of improvement in the run game and generating splash plays. Most of all, Fackrell wants to be seen as a consistent and accountable performer.
While the Packers sort through their coaching staff over the next month, Fackrell embraces the possibility of being a featured part of the defense moving forward. As gratifying as it was to meet his goal, Fackrell wants another 10-sack year in 2019.
“It’s the benchmark, so that will definitely be a goal to have double-digit sacks again next year,” Fackrell said. “There was a lot of factors that could have held me back, playing time and all that, but I was fortunate that it was able to work out.”