Inside linebacker has been a concern for the Green Bay Packers all offseason. In truth, it’s been a concern for years. However, it finally appears, after years of trying, that significant strides have been made.
It’s possible that the progress will not show itself until later in the season, but unless injuries strike, inside linebacker is no longer a glaring weakness for Green Bay.
Yes, It’s a bold statement to make, but there are a few reasons why it’s true.
For one, the depth is much, much better than in recent years. Blake Martinez, Joe Thomas, Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington give the Packers four pretty good options and on top of that, all are fairly young and they all bring multiple talents to the position.
Inside linebacker is also stocked well enough that Clay Matthews can play outside, where his impact is more profound.
That alone is a major achievement.
How did the Packers solve the problem they seemingly dismissed for years?
Green Bay invested. Ryan and Martinez were picked in the fourth round and they are each going to be a key part of the transformation. Barrington was a seventh round pick and Thomas was an UDFA. Not all the investments were big, but they were continued and now, finally, they appear to be paying off.
Martinez will be the answer in sub packages. He’s a natural in coverage, he has great instincts, which covers his average speed he’s used to being on an island in coverage, so he won’t blink covering tight ends, backs or even receivers.
Ryan isn’t great in coverage, but he’s a classic inside linebacker. He’s physical in the run game. At times, Ryan can be a liability in coverage, but he isn’t horrible either.
Martinez has played well in camp and was solid in his NFL debut. If he doesn’t play 50 percent of the snaps on defense, I’d be surprised. But Ryan will see the field plenty too, particularly in the base defense.
Those are two options and that’s before even getting to Barrington, who was a solid starter in 2014 (60 tackles) and was viewed as a potential breakout candidate last year before an injury ruined his season.
Mike Daniels said that when Barrington returned to practice recently, that you could hear then pads popping. Barrington has always been a big hitter and you need a guy like that inside.
Ryan may get there someday, but right now Barrington needs to be the Packers’ thumper — their intimidator. And make no mistake, if healthy, he will be that guy.
Lastly, there is Joe Thomas. In 2015, the former UDFA worked his way onto the roster due to his coverage skills. This year, he seems to have taken his game to another level and a physical hit against the Browns he showed he can pack a punch.
Last season, Thomas played in 14 games. He finished with 26 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one pass defense. He wasn’t a world beater, but he was decent and he has gotten better.
This view doesn’t even account for Carl Bradford, who also has looked better than ever this summer or the fact that safety Morgan Burnett will see some snaps inside too for coverage purposes.
Now, the Packers still don’t have a stud inside — there are no Pro Bowlers, at least not yet.
However, there is more than enough for the position to be sound and part of a championship caliber defense.
Certainly, there is a ways to go, but the progress at inside linebacker is significant — enough that Matthews can stay outside, which means the whole defense has a chance to finally reach its potential.
Inside linebacker may still be among the weakest spots on the Packers defense, but upgrading weaknesses is the objective of roster building and when it comes to inside linebacker, there is no question, the Packers have done just that.