GREEN BAY, Wis. – In a tradition that stretches more than a decade, here is our annual ranking of the 90 players on the Green Bay Packers’ roster. This isn’t merely a look at the best players. Rather, it’s a formula that combines talent, salary, importance of the position, depth at the position and, for young players, draft positioning. More than the ranking, we hope you learn a little something about every player on the roster.
No. 8: ILB Christian Kirksey (6-2, 235, seventh season, Iowa)
Obviously, a lot of things are going to have to fall into place for the Packers to leapfrog past San Francisco in the NFC. Aaron Rodgers is going to have to play like Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones must be a dynamic weapon again, the Smith Bros. must create havoc and someone needs to step up alongside Davante Adams.
The play of Kirksey will be just as important. If he can stay healthy and recapture his form from the 2016 through 2017 seasons, the Packers’ defense will have a chance to make the improvements needed to go from good to great.
If you don’t know the specifics, you probably know the generalities. In a sport in which the greatest ability is availability, Kirksey has played in only nine games the past two seasons due to injuries. When the Browns ridded themselves of the final two years of Kirksey’s mammoth four-year, $38 million contract, the Packers happily pounced under the belief that a healthy Kirksey is better than a healthy Blake Martinez.
That may be true.
In 2016 and 2017, Kirksey was second in the NFL with 286 tackles. In 2018 and 2019, Martinez was first in the NFL with 299 tackles.
However, Martinez’s lack of range reduced the impact of all those tackles. STATS has a stat called stuffs, which are a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. the run. That stat shows the impact in Kirksey’s game.
In 32 starts in 2018 and 2019, Martinez tied for 12th among off-the-ball linebackers with 22 stuffs. In 32 starts in 2016 and 2017, Kirksey tied for second among linebackers with 36 stuffs. To break it down further:
Stuffs per game: Martinez averaged 0.69 in 2018 and 2019 while Kirksey averaged 1.13 in 2016 and 2017.
Tackles per stuff: Martinez averaged 13.59 tackles per stuff in 2018 and 2019 while Kirksey averaged 7.94 tackles per stuff in 2016 and 2017.
According to Pro Football Reference, Kirksey’s tackles on all running plays the past four seasons came after a gain of 3.4 yards compared to 4.1 for Martinez.
Given how the Packers were destroyed by Raheem Mostert in the NFC Championship Game, it’s obvious the Packers need a healthy and active Kirksey patrolling the middle of the defense.
“We’re very excited about the signing,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who was Kirksey’s head coach in Cleveland in 2014 and 2015, said during an offseason Zoom call. “Just going through the medical part of it and talking to our people, they didn’t think it was anything that was long term. 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, I mean, 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.”
Why he’s so important: Say what you want about Martinez, but he played week after week after week after week. Kirksey’s health, obviously, is the wild card. If he’s hurt again, there aren’t a lot of good options. Oren Burks? Ty Summers? Kamal Martin? Curtis Bolton? None of them have proven anything. Maybe there’s greatness in that depth chart but that’s a lot of wishing and hoping. So, at this point, it’s Kirksey or bust. The Packers made a two-year, $13 million investment.
“I don’t look at it as a lot on my plate,” Kirksey said during an offseason Zoom call. “I don’t believe in putting pressure on myself. I just go out there and play the game I know and play the way I know how to play it, and that’s why Coach Pettine brought me in. He knows the guy I am on and off the field, and that’s how I’ve been my whole career. So, I just go out there and play hard, play for my teammates, be a leader, so I don’t really sense no pressure or that there’s a lot on my plate. But being one of the more experienced guys in the league, in that room, I have to do what I do, and that’s go out there and ball. That’s all I’m worried about.”