GREEN BAY, Wis. – When general manager Brian Gutekunst moved up in the first round of April’s draft to select quarterback Jordan Love, it practically guaranteed the Green Bay Packers would have to endure another year of mediocre linebacker play.
Not only did the Packers fail to improve after letting Blake Martinez sign with the New York Giants in free agency, they took a step backward with the addition of veteran replacement Christian Kirksey and the decision to bypass Patrick Queen in the first round.
With Kirksey underperforming and fifth-round rookie Kamal Martin missing the first five games following knee surgery, the Packers were forced to rely on undrafted rookie Krys Barnes. Barnes, who was the every-down inside linebacker for the playoffs even while essentially playing one-handed with a club-cast to protect a broken thumb, flashed potential but not enough to make him a sure-fire centerpiece of new coordinator Joe Barry’s defense.
“I think we have to have more productive play out of there,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said last week. “We had some injuries there early in the year and was really proud of the way some of the guys stepped in [and] the way they competed. But I do think we need to have better production out of our inside linebacker group. We have some young players in there that will grow and get better, and I think we’ll see that moving forward.”
The difference in play between Green Bay’s inside linebackers and Tampa Bay’s tandem in the teams’ two matchups couldn’t have been more lopsided. There might not be a duo in the NFL that covers more ground than the Buccaneers’ Lavonte David and Devin White.
The Bucs invested heavily in the position. David was a second-round pick in 2012 – former general manager Ted Thompson drafted defensive tackle Jerel Worthy instead – and just completed the final season of a five-year, $50.5 million contract extension. In nine seasons, he’s averaged 125 tackles, 14.2 tackles for losses, 2.7 sacks and 5.8 turnover plays (forced fumbles, fumble recoveries and interceptions). White, the fifth pick of the 2019 draft, had 140 tackles, nine sacks and 15 tackles for losses in 2020. He chalked up 10 turnover plays in his two seasons and added four more in this year’s playoffs. Of course, the Packers hope they're never in position to draft a player like White.
For Green Bay, Barnes and Kirksey tied for second on the team with 78 tackles and Martin added 23 in 10 games. Combined, they had 179 tackles, four sacks, 10 tackles for losses and three turnover plays (two interceptions by Kirksey and one forced fumble by Barnes).
The Packers could have had the rocket-fast, 21-year-old Queen, who started all 16 games for the Baltimore Ravens and finished with 106 tackles, three sacks, nine tackles for losses and five turnover plays. He became the first rookie since at least 2000 with at least 100 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble and a defensive touchdown, according to the Baltimore Sun.
For his efforts, Queen earned all-rookie recognition and finished third in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, but he played with incredible inconsistency even for a rookie. He covered poorly and tackled even worse. Would he have played better with Green Bay, especially with a veteran like Kirksey as a mentor? Will his level of play soar in Year 2?
While the Ravens wait for those answers, the Packers will enter what seems like their umpteenth consecutive offseason searching for a game-wrecking inside linebacker. Barnes can run and Martin has a nose for the football. Neither shied away from the action. Great defenses typically have a great man in the middle. It will be up to Gutekunst and Barry to determine if Barnes and Martin can be that tandem or if a bold move is needed in the pursuit of a championship-level defense.