Green Bay Packers: How Good Can the Linebacker Unit Be?

Oct 25, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Kamal Martin (54) reacts after a play during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 25, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Kamal Martin (54) reacts after a play during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

The linebacker position is one that Green Bay Packers fans have wanted the team to try to upgrade, whether it be with an early-round draft pick or a high-priced free agent, as it has been seen as one of the weaker points on the defensive unit in recent years.

However, linebacker just typically is not a position that Green Bay is going to invest much capital — whether it be dollars or draft picks — into.

Yet with two young contributors in Kamal Martin and Krys Barnes, the veteran stability that De’Vondre Campbell provides, along with a new defensive system under Joe Barry that is more linebacker friendly, I do like what this unit can offer this Green Bay Packers defense in 2021.

Now, I’ll preface all of this by saying that I don’t expect this linebacker trio to be elite by any means, but I do believe we could see more of an impact from this unit than what we have in the past.

So just how good can this Green Bay Packers linebacker unit be?

Krys Barnes really came out of nowhere last season as a UDFA and was wearing the green dot on defense by the end of the year. According to PFF ($$), Barnes recorded five pressures and a sack, along with 89 total tackles. Not to mention a huge forced fumble on the goal line against Carolina. When he was on the field, he made impact plays.

Barnes is a very reliable tackler, finishing with a top-20 grade among linebackers by PFF’s metrics and he’s strong against the run. On the flip side, he was picked on in coverage at times, allowing a completion rate of 88 percent on 41 targets, and also missed some time with various injuries.

While there is certainly room for improvement, and Barnes’ overall PFF grade reflects that, there’s a lot to like about his skill-set as well. If he can take that step forward in Year 2 that so many NFL players make, as well as stay healthy, he can once again be a big contributor.

Martin is in a similar boat as Barnes–with areas to improve upon, but there’s also a lot to like. Martin finished his rookie season with four pressures and a sack over 208 snaps with 41 total tackles, including three for a loss. He was targeted only five times in coverage.

He plays the game uber-aggressive, flying around the field looking to make the big play–especially against the run. This is a positive as well as a negative, however, as Martin’s over-aggressiveness also caused him to miss out on making some plays as well.

If he can play with a bit more control, it’s going to lead to more opportunities to impact the game. Out of all the members of this Green Bay Packers team, Martin could end up making one of the bigger leaps this season.

The last member of this trio is the somewhat recently signed De’Vondre Campbell. Although both Martin and Barnes battled injuries as rookies, Campbell has played in all 48 games over the last four seasons. While he isn’t spectacular in any one area, he has good size and athleticism and is an all-around solid player as a run defender, blitzer, and in coverage. As I noted above, he will help provide some stability to this linebacker unit.

The 2020 Los Angeles Rams defense ranked first in points per game allowed and fourth by DVOA even though they lost prized linebacker Corey Littleton in free agency prior to the season. This, of course, is a credit to the Rams players but also the defensive system, which, as Packer Report’s Ross Uglem noted in this year’s Cheesehead TV Draft Guide, is much more linebacker friendly:

"“Even suggesting this will drive Packers fans nuts, but the Staley system doesn’t require an amazing set of inside linebackers. One of the Rams’ more significant personnel departures after the 2019 season was highly sought-after linebacker Corey Littleton. Littleton was tied to the Packers (mostly by fans) during the 2020 offseason.“Despite his departure (and despite less-than-stellar play from his replacements), the Rams defense didn’t skip a beat. Rather, they improved. Once again, the key to a great Green Bay defense doesn’t necessarily mean a great “man in the middle.” The Staley/Fangio scheme does an excellent job of keeping the linebackers clean because of the alignment of the front five. Therefore, the smaller, more athletic linebackers are just fine for this system.”"

In writing this article, there’s obviously some speculation on my part. We haven’t seen any of these players up close in the new Joe Barry defense, and while expectations are that Martin and Barnes take a step forward in Year 2, there’s no guarantee that happens either.

But I also believe there is plenty to be excited about with this unit as well, which is why the title of this article is, “how good can the linebacker unit be?” I see it has a fairly wide-ranging scale–which is more than what we could have said in years past with what were somewhat limited linebacker units.

Martin and Barnes have the upside, Campbell brings the experience and well rounded skill-set, while Barry’s defense will put them all in positions to succeed.