Big Training Camp Battles: Inside Linebackers

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Last season, Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine lined up with one inside linebacker and six-plus defensive backs on 52 percent of the snaps. That was the highest rate in the league, well ahead of Baltimore’s 43 percent.

Did Pettine go that route because of the coverage limitations of Blake Martinez and B.J. Goodson last year (and Martinez and Antonio Morrison in 2018)? Or does he simply like the speed brought to the table by having a sixth defensive back on the field?

This season could provide some answers. From a coverage perspective, free­-agent addition Christian Kirksey should be an upgrade over Martinez. While the Packers didn’t have any linebackers who could cover last season, perhaps Kirksey’s presence will enable Pettine to use some more traditional defensive looks.

The words “should” and “perhaps” in that paragraph are telling. For all the talk about the questions at receiver, there isn’t a position on the roster shrouded in more mystery than inside linebacker. Can Kirksey stay healthy and return to his playmaking form after missing most of the last two seasons? Can Oren Burks stay healthy after suffering significant injuries in both of his training camps? Can Curtis Bolton bounce back from last year’s torn ACL after a hot start to camp? Can Ty Summers parlay a strong rookie season on special teams into a role on defense? Can fifth-round pick Kamal Martin be an immediate contributor after his final season at Minnesota was sidetracked by a knee injury?

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Kirksey will take Martinez’s role as the every-down linebacker but his recent injury history makes it a dicey assumption to simply mark him in with a Sharpie. Thus, the battle for No. 2 and beyond will be critical – and perhaps more critical if the speed on the depth chart allows Pettine to play more two-linebacker packages.

“Oren is entering his third year and we’re excited about him staying healthy and seeing what he can do a full year out there healthy,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said recently. “I thought Ty Summers did a really nice job for us not only as a backer but on special teams. We’ll look for him to improve and move forward and maybe affect the game more on defense than he did last year. And, obviously, Kamal Martin, who’s a fifth-round pick for us, we’re excited about him [as well as] Curtis Bolton. I think there’s going to be pretty good competition for that spot next to Christian. So, we’ll kind of see how it goes over the next four weeks but I think there’s opportunity for those guys. I’m excited about all of them.”

Even though Martinez was a tackling machine, the Packers clearly need better at the position. Against the run, they finished 24th with 4.67 yards allowed per carry. Against the pass, Green Bay was 31st in short catches allowed over the middle of the field. While that’s not purely an inside-linebacker problem, it’s a starting point.

The wild card is Bolton, who overcame a couple serious injuries at Oklahoma to surprisingly beat out five-star recruit Caleb Kelly for the starting job as a senior in 2018. In his lone season as a starter, he piled up 139 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 12 tackles for losses. He ran his 40 in 4.59 at OU’s pro day, went unsigned and was given a $7,000 bonus to sign with the Packers. He was well on his way to earning a roster spot – and perhaps a role on the defense – until the knee injury in the third preseason game.

“I know this is a team that likes playing a lot of DBs and a lot of DBs in the box,” Bolton said last summer. “If I can show I can run like a DB and hit like a linebacker, I think I can make a home for myself here.”

Final roster prediction (4)

In: Christian Kirksey, Oren Burks, Ty Summers, Curtis Bolton.

Out: Kamal Martin, Krys Barnes.

Big Training Camp Battles

QB: Boyle vs. Love

RB: Are the top four locks?

OL: Does Turner vs. Taylor mean Taylor vs. Wagner?

TE: Who will emerge as starter?

WR: Who will join Adams?

DL: Battle behind Clark

OLB: Taking the load off the Smith Bros.

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