Green Bay Packers: Major questions remain at middle linebacker

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images /

The Green Bay Packers answered a lot of questions about their roster this offseason. However, a major one remains at middle linebacker.

Heading into the offseason, the Green Bay Packers had multiple holes to address without an unlimited supply of assets. Still, general manager Brian Gutekunst did a nice job and shored up some major concerns. He aggressively pursued outside linebackers in free agency and completed the job addressing his defense in the draft. However, one position he’s basically completely ignored is inside linebacker.

The Packers have a tackling stud in Blake Martinez who will hold down the fort as a starter. Martinez, who was drafted in the fourth-round in 2016, racked up a whopping 144 total tackles last season. That was the second year in a row he recorded at least 142. Even though he isn’t spectacular as a playmaker, he’s always around the ball and is solid.

The real question is about who plays behind Martinez.

Jake Ryan started 27 games during his first three years in Green Bay, but tore his ACL in training camp and missed the entire season. He’s no longer on the team. Antonio Morrison was acquired via trade last year as a potential replacement for Ryan. He’s a big hitter, but is very slow-footed. Regardless, the Packers moved on from him as well and he’s no longer on the roster.

That leaves special-teamer James Crawford, 2018 third-round pick Oren Burks and 2019 7th round pick Ty Summers as the only “true” inside linebackers on the roster behind Martinez. Crawford is a special teamer and shouldn’t be used on defense. Burks wasn’t good enough to see the field on defense last year and must make a huge jump in order to prove he deserves playing time. And who knows what the Packers will get from Summers.

Given the nature of the 3-4 defense Mike Pettine likes to run, they’ll often have two players at “inside linebacker” on the field at one time. However, Pettine might have plans to think outside the box when it comes to this position.

The Packers likely hope Burks takes a nice step forward, as he’d be a great compliment to Martinez. He played safety during his first two years at Vanderbilt and is a great athlete. However, if he doesn’t pan out, Josh Jones could be another option.

Jones struggles the farther away from the line of scrimmage he gets so placing him at linebacker could allow him to thrive based on his natural instincts. This idea isn’t new and it’s something that’s been tried throughout his NFL career and to no avail. Regardless, the Packers have to come up some alternative solutions given the lack of talent on their roster behind Martinez.

Pettine could also look at some odd combination of outside linebackers and members of the secondary to fill the void as well. Green Bay may not have elite talent at outside linebacker, but they’re suddenly deep with Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Rashan Gary and Kyler Fackrell. They also have a number of players in their secondary that could fill in for special circumstances.

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Regardless of which route the defense chooses to go, none of it is a perfect fit. Pettine will have to get creative unless Green Bay goes out and signs a player from the limited free agent class. It’s definitely a question worth keeping an eye on as we enter summer and creep toward training camp.