A Key at Inside Linebacker: Kirksey’s Availability, Productivity

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – On any list of keys for the Green Bay Packers in 2020, it doesn’t take long to mention linebacker Christian Kirksey.

In his first two seasons as a starter, Kirksey was one of the most productive linebackers in the NFL. In 2016 and 2017, only Seattle’s Bobby Wagner had more tackles than Kirksey. However, injuries ravaged his career, costing him not only 23 of a possible 32 games the last two seasons but millions of dollars upon his release by the Cleveland Browns.

The Packers happily signed Kirskey with the belief that his athleticism could be the missing piece on a defense that finished ninth in the league in points allowed in 2019 but toward the bottom in rushing yards allowed per game and per carry.

“We’re very excited about the signing,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said in May. “Just going through the medical part of it and talking to our people, they didn’t think it was anything that was long term. I mean, he’s never been a guy that’s been injury prone. Obviously, that’s a concern when you see the amount of time that he’s missed but, overall, I just think it was a great signing for us for a lot of reasons. We’re not just bringing a really good player into the room. This is a guy who has great leadership ability. Certainly, it’s a risk when you look at it but it was a risk that we were more than willing to take. So, we’re excited about it.”

Former starter Blake Martinez might have had some warts as a player – he continually was a day late and a dollar short as the 49ers’ running game destroyed the Packers in the NFC Championship Game – but he was durable and productive. Not only did he start all 48 games the past three seasons, but he set the single-season franchise record for tackles last season and led the league in tackles the past three seasons.

The same can’t be said for anyone else in the inside linebacker room.

Oren Burks, a third-round pick in 2018 who was billed as a potential three-down player coming out of Vanderbilt, suffered significant injuries in each of his first two training camps. While he’s played in 26 of a possible 32 games, anyway, the injuries deprived him of critical practice time and stunted his growth. He’s been a nonfactor thus far with only 24 career tackles.

That’s 24 more tackles than the next four guys on the depth chart.

Ty Summers, a seventh-round pick last year who didn’t play on defense as a rookie but was a top performer on special teams, tore both of his labrums at TCU.

After Burks went down last year, undrafted rookie Curtis Bolton got some first-team snaps. His intriguing summer, however, was ruined by a torn ACL in the third preseason game.

Kamal Martin, a fifth-round pick in this year’s draft, dealt with a knee injury last year at Minnesota; offseason surgery kept him from testing during the run-up to the draft.

The only other addition on draft weekend was Krys Barnes, an undrafted free agent from UCLA.

With that as a backdrop, can Kirksey stay healthy and reprise his form from a few years ago? And if not, is there anyone on the roster capable of a spot in the lineup?

Those are absolutely critical questions, because it’s almost impossible to believe the Packers can dethrone San Francisco in the NFC and reach the Super Bowl without a linebacker capable of being an impact defender vs. the run.

A KEY AT EACH POSITION

Quarterback: Too many incompletions

Receiver: Too many drops

Running back: How will the carries be divided?

Tight end: For starters, it’s Sternberger

Offensive line: Wagner vs. stud pass rushers

Defensive line: Fixing the run defense

Outside linebacker: It’s Gary time

Inside linebacker: Kirksey's health

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