Could This Be the Year the Packers Prioritize Linebacker?

Over the last 14 drafts, the Green Bay Packers have drafted only one off-the-ball linebacker with a top-125 selection.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Where will Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst turn with his first-round pick on April 29?

Will he turn to one of three receivers who could be available?

Will he turn to one of the cornerbacks he’s seen on the pro day trail?

Or will he turn to a position that’s seemingly been ignored? Whether it was Ted Thompson or Gutekunst, the Packers have not prioritized inside linebacker. Since Thompson drafted A.J. Hawk in the first round and Abdul Hodge in the third in 2006, the Packers have used only one top-125 pick on an off-the-ball linebacker. That was Oren Burks with No. 88 overall selection of the third round of Gutekunst’s first draft in 2018.

Could that change this year?

The Packers had three representatives at Notre Dame on Wednesday, including Gutekunst, according to a source.

The star attraction was linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. To be sure, he wasn’t the only player under a green-and-gold microscope. The Fighting Irish might have 11 players drafted, including four offensive linemen. But Owusu-Koramoah is Notre Dame’s best prospect and might be of interest if he slides into Green Bay’s range.

Then, on Friday, Green Bay had a scout at Tulsa. Perhaps its only draftable prospect is linebacker Zaven Collins. As is the case with Owusu-Koramoah, Collins could be of interest if he gets into Green Bay’s first-round neighborhood.

They could hardly be different players from a size perspective. Owusu-Koramoah measured 6-foot-1 1/2 and 221 pounds. He did not run a 40-yard dash but he aced the 20-yard shuttle – a key Packers measurement over the years – with a 4.15-second timing. Collins measured 6-foot-4 7/8 and 259 pounds. According to NFL.com, he ran his 40 in 4.67 seconds.

Owusu-Koramoah is a new-age linebacker, a sideline-to-sideline defender with the speed to not just cover but to allow a defense to play in more traditional packages rather than lining up in dime, as the Packers have been forced to over the years. In 25 games over two seasons, he recorded 142 tackles, including seven sacks and 24.5 tackles for losses, one interception, seven additional passes defensed and five forced fumbles. He won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.

Collins brings traditional linebacker size to the table, giving him the ability to take on blockers, but also the diverse skill-set to rush or drop into coverage. In 32 games over three seasons, he recorded 236 tackles, including 7.5 sacks and 25 for losses, five interceptions (four in 2020), eight additional passes defensed and three forced fumbles. He won the Nagurski, Bednarik and Lombardi awards and was second in the Butkus.

“It’s pretty fun to be able to do all this stuff,” he told The Associated Press. “Things come at you from a million different directions. You’re being pulled a million different ways. So you just have to sit back and focus on the things that got you here.”

On Tuesday, Gutekunst was at Ohio State. As was the case with Notre Dame, the Buckeyes have draftable talent at several positions. One of those positions is linebacker, where linebackers Baron Browning and Pete Werner could be Day 2 options.

At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Browning ran his 40 in 4.58 seconds with a 40-inch vertical and 4.23 in the 20-yard shuttle, according to Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy. At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, the steady Werner ran his 40 in 4.58 with a 39.5-inch vertical and 4.38 shuttle.

Browning’s best season came as a junior in 2019, he had five sacks and 11 tackles for losses. During his seven-game senior season, he recorded the only two forced fumbles and pass breakups of his college career. Werner recorded 176 tackles, four sacks, 15.5 tackles for losses, four forced fumbles and 13 pass breakups in his three seasons as a starter.

New Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry, a linebackers coach through the years, inherited undrafted free agent Krys Barnes as his top linebacker. If training camp were to open today, Barnes and Kamal Martin, a fifth-round pick last year, would be the starting tandem.