Packers want ‘better production’ out of inside linebacker group

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Zach Kruse
·3 min read
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Last January, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said he wanted to take a “long look” at his inside linebacker group. He responded by letting Blake Martinez go in free agency, signing veteran Christian Kirksey, drafting Kamal Martin and signing undrafted free agent Krys Barnes.

Now, Gutekunst wants better production from the position – and it’s possible the improvement could come from young players already on the roster.

“Yeah, I think have to have more productive play out of there,” Gutekunst said last month. “We had some injuries there early in the year. I was really proud of the way guys stepped in, the way they competed. But I do think we need better production out of our inside linebacker group. I expect, we have some young players in there that will grow and get better. I think we’ll see that moving forward.”

Kirksey missed five games with injury and could be a cap casualty after just one season in Green Bay. Martin and Barnes both went through the ups and downs of being a rookie playing important snaps in their first seasons. Ty Summers only saw brief action. Oren Burks, a third-round pick in 2018, played more on the edge than at inside linebacker.

Pro Football Focus grades for Packers inside linebackers, 2020

Christian Kirksey: 48.3 (591 snaps)
Krys Barnes: 43.0 (504)
Kamal Martin: 68.5 (208)
Ty Summers: 47.7 (41)
Oren Burks: 28.6 (96)

If Kirksey is released, Barnes and Martin would likely go into the 2021 season as the favorites to start at inside linebacker, although much could change under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, who specializes in the linebacker position.

The Packers could also dip into free agency to find a cheap veteran replacement for Kirksey, or spend another draft pick on a player they can develop in the new system.

Or they could re-do Kirksey’s deal and hope he can stay healthy and thrive in a new scheme.

It’s possible that substantial internal improvement or a legitimate outside acquisition at inside linebacker could turn the Packers’ talented defense into an elite group overall. The position, while devalued, is still important in stopping the run and defending the middle of the field in the passing game.

Gutekunst sounds like he may be content going into next season with the young players he’s already acquired at the position, banking on expected progression to drive the necessary improvement. Barnes, a surprise starter in Week 1, showed toughness and instincts at times as a first-year player. Martin, despite a training camp knee injury, flashed disruptive ability as an attacker.

Gutekunst’s attempts to fix the position – long a problem area in Green Bay – have mostly failed. Burks has been a bust on defense, and veteran additions such as Antonio Morrison, B.J. Goodson and Kirksey haven’t worked out. It may come down to Barnes and Martin to provide the increased production Gutekunst craves at inside linebacker in 2021.

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Evaluating Green Bay Packers' roster entering 2021 offseason