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Two-year overhaul of linebacker corps continues for Packers

Inside the target now after outside got all the attention in 2019

LB Christian Kirksey
LB Christian Kirksey

This is the sixth in a series of stories that's examining the Packers' roster, position by position, leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft. The series continues with the linebackers.

GREEN BAY – By the time the 2020 season rolls around, no position group for the Packers will have undergone more change over the last two years than linebacker.

One year after outside linebacker got a major overhaul, it's the inside spot shifting now.

As team-leading tackler Blake Martinez and one-year stopgap B.J. Goodson departed in free agency, the Packers signed Christian Kirksey from the Browns. The seventh-year pro and Iowa alum was considered a potential rising star a couple of years ago, but injuries have wrecked his last two seasons, allowing him to play in only nine games, including just two in 2019.

Kirksey will be looking for a fresh start in Green Bay, and essentially a restart to his career, but the acquisition by no means takes inside linebacker off the table in the early rounds of the draft for the Packers.

Green Bay is on the lookout for a long-term fixture at the position with no one proven behind Kirksey, though a trio of young players is still developing.

Oren Burks was targeted as a future regular when the Packers traded up to draft him in the third round out of Vanderbilt in 2018, but his first two seasons haven't gone as planned. Injuries in training camp both summers delayed his progress and took away opportunities, and while he's become a core special-teams performer, he has yet to make his mark on defense as he enters an important third season.

Another valuable special-teamer, Ty Summers, was a seventh-round pick from TCU a year ago who will look to advance in coordinator Mike Pettine's defense as well.

Oklahoma's Curtis Bolton was in line to possibly start as an undrafted rookie alongside Martinez in 2019 until a season-ending knee injury scuttled those plans.

Unfortunately for all three, and for any potential draft pick added to the mix, the lack of a normal offseason program with their coaches and teammates could impact their level of readiness to line up alongside an established pro like Kirksey. But like all teams, the Packers will just have to do the best they can with their young players.

Outside linebacker is certainly the more stable of the two positions after a major rebuild in 2019.

Signing Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith in free agency turned into a boon for Pettine's unit, as the pair combined for 25½ sacks. Za'Darius, who went to his first Pro Bowl, had 13½ while Preston had 12, the first duo in team history with a dozen or more each, and they added four more sacks in the playoffs. The two transformed Green Bay's defense practically overnight.

The Packers also spent a first-round pick last year on Michigan's Rashan Gary, the No. 12 overall selection. While Gary's rookie contributions were limited (30 tackles, two sacks), he showed enough to generate excitement for the future.

Gary is in line for a larger role in 2020 following Kyler Fackrell's departure in free agency, and due to Pettine's tendency late in the season to move Za'Darius Smith around the defensive front, opening up more opportunities to have three outside linebackers on the field simultaneously.

A fourth edge rusher in the rotation to replace Fackrell is on the list of needs, so the Packers could add a prospect in the draft and/or see what develops amongst three other candidates.

Randy Ramsey and Greg Roberts were undrafted rookies last year from Arkansas and Baylor, respectively, who did not play. Ramsey spent the entire season on the practice squad, while Roberts lost the year to injury and never came off the reserve/PUP list.

Fourth-year pro Tim Williams also was brought back after being claimed off waivers at midseason. A third-round pick by the Ravens in 2017 who played with Za'Darius Smith in Baltimore, Williams appeared in one game for the Packers in early November before spending the rest of the season on the practice squad.


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