barnes photo 4-25

Packers' Krys Barnes reacts after a stop during the second half against the Panthers last season at Lambeau Field.

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GREEN BAY — With a new defensive coordinator and a new scheme, the Green Bay Packers’ view of the inside linebacker position might be changing, too.

Of course, it might have changed even if coach Matt LaFleur hadn’t swapped out Mike Pettine for new coordinator Joe Barry, regardless. Why? Because the Packers got not one but two up-close-and-personal looks at how big of a difference fast, playmaking inside linebackers can make for a defense in their two losses to the Super Bowl LV-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers — including in the Packers’ NFC Championship Game loss to the Bucs on Jan. 24.

“I think we have to have more productive play out of there,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said earlier this offseason when asked about Tampa Bay’s duo of Lavonte David and Devin White and how the Packers could follow the Buccaneers’ lead at that position.

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

After letting longtime starter Blake Martinez walk in free agency last year, the Packers replaced him with veteran Christian Kirksey, who signed a two-year deal after being cut by the Cleveland Browns. Kirksey suffered a pectoral injury in Week 3, missed a good chunk of the year and then saw two youngsters — undrafted rookie free agent Krys Barnes and rookie fifth-round pick Kamal Martin — form Pettine’s preferred combination at the position.

The Packers also have 2018 third-round pick Oren Burks and 2019 seventh-round pick Ty Summers inside, though both players saw action primarily on special teams when the other inside linebackers were healthy. Burks, whose first two years were derailed by injuries, might benefit from Barry’s arrival and could perhaps turn his career around in a new system.

During his introductory Zoom call with reporters in early March, Barry spoke highly of what he saw on film from the holdovers at the position, based on the limited film study he’d done of Barnes and Martin in particular.

“I think at any position, but the inside linebacker position specifically, I think instincts, awareness — some people call it ‘FBI,’ football instincts — (are) so important,” said Barry, who spent most of his NFL coaching career in charge of inside linebackers as a position coach. “That’s why the evaluation process is so vital, because I equate playing inside linebacker very similar to playing running back.

“I thought I was a pretty good linebacker coach. But as good a coach as you are … you can’t teach a (player) how to have instincts and awareness. Linebackers specifically, we can teach guys how to use their hands a little bit better, we can teach them how to play a little bit more square. We can teach them what to key and what to specifically look at. But good linebackers, they’re given instincts, they’re given awareness. That’s not coached.

“Specifically (at) that position, we’ll see how it plays out.”

In recent years, the Packers haven’t put a premium on the position, as Barnes’ and Martin’s emergence reinforce. Whether Gutekunst saw what the Buccaneers defense did with David and White is enough to cause a significant philosophical shift remains to be seen, but speaking earlier in the offseason Gutekunst sounded like he wanted to see Barnes and Martin get every opportunity to show they can handle the jobs.

“Really good defenses can be made up in different ways. I think as things have unfolded, I think really the main thing is affecting the passer,” Gutekunst said. “I think that’s the main thing that you’ve got (to have) to be a good overall defense. You’ve got to be able to stop the run. You’ve got to cover. You’ve got to be able to rush the passer.

“I think the teams that consistently win in this league are the teams that affect the passer. But I do think having that quarterback of your defense is (also) important. They’re few and far between. There’s not a ton of those guys out there and it usually takes a few years to get the kind of experience you need.

“I’m kind of excited about some of our young, inside linebackers and their potential and where they can grow to. While there will be some scheme change moving forward, I’m excited to see what they can do with that.“

Depth chart

51 | Krys Barnes — 6-2, 229, UCLA

54 | Kamal Martin — 6-3, 240, Minnesota

44 |Ty Summers — 6-1, 241, TCU

42 | Oren Burks — 6-3, 233, Vanderbilt

59 | De’Jon Harris — 6-0, 231, Arkansas

Ray Wilborn — 6-3, 230, Ball State

Best in class

Micah Parsons, Penn State

The 6-foot-3, 246-pound Parsons played just two seasons at Penn State before opting out of 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But he was remarkably productive from the get-go. Playing 26 games as a true freshman and sophomore, Parsons finished his career in Happy Valley with 192 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and five pass break-ups. He was a first-team All-American in 2019 and became the first sophomore in Big Ten history to win the conference’s Butkus-Fitzgerald linebacker of the year award.

He ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash at his on-campus pro day and downplayed any concerns about having been away from football for an entire season, saying that he had wanted to play but that his family decided it was best to opt out. He started training for the draft in September and doesn’t think the missed season hurts his standing among scouts one bit.

“I just feel I’m the most versatile player in this class,” Parsons said at Penn State’s pro day. “I can play middle linebacker. I can play outside. And I can pass rush. There’s no place I can’t play and utilize my skills. I’m going to make plays at the next level just like I did at Penn State.

“My versatility is going to come in handy. First and second down, I can go sideline to sideline. Third down, I can go get the quarterback. So I think I’ll be walking into a great position.”

Best of the rest

Zaven Collins, Tulsa; Jamin Davis, Kentucky; Nick Bolton, Missouri; Jabril Cox, LSU; Baron Browning, Ohio State; Chazz Surratt, North Carolina; Pete Werner, Ohio State.

Pick to click

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame

The Packers reportedly had three members of their scouting staff — including Gutekunst — at Notre Dame’s March 31 pro day on campus. If they decide this is the year to invest a premium draft pick in an inside linebacker, one would think they would be thrilled if Owusu-Koramoah fell to them at No. 29 or fell close enough to them to trade up and get him.

Playing what Notre Dame calls the “rover” position, the 6-foot-1, 221-pound Owusu-Koramoah recorded seven sacks, 24.5 tackles for loss, one interception, five forced fumbles and 142 tackles over 25 games the past two seasons and won the Butkus Award as college football’s best linebacker. He has shown not only sideline-to-sideline speed but the ability to cover in the passing game, something that has become increasingly vital in today’s NFL game.

“With me playing a lot of man coverage this year that helped me out I think in my transition to the league as the NFL has become more of a pass-happy league,” Owusu-Koramoah said at Notre Dame’s pro day. “More teams are running 70 percent, 80 percent sub-packages. That kind of duality I think is what NFL teams are looking for as the league progresses to more of a pass league.”

History lesson

To this point, Gutekunst seems to have taken his cues at inside linebacker from his predecessor, Ted Thompson. Yes, Thompson did draft Ohio State linebakcer A.J. Hawk with the fifth overall pick in 2006, but at the time, the Packers were running a 4-3 scheme and Hawk was a will linebacker in then-defensive coordinator Bob Sanders’ system. Both for Dom Capers’ 3-4 system and Pettine’s 3-4, the Packers have been generally content to man the inside linebacker spots with mid- to late-round draft picks.

Among those players who started games at inside linebacker are Desmond Bishop (sixth round, 2007); Brad Jones (seventh round, 2009); D.J. Smith (sixth round, 2011); Sam Barrington (seventh round, 2013); Nate Palmer (sixth round, 2013); Jake Ryan (fourth round, 2015) and Martinez (fourth round, 2016). Barnes (undrafted) and Martin (fifth round) were further evidence of that last year, although their opportunities did come in part because Burks (third round, 2018) — the highest pick Thompson or Gutekunst has spent on the position since 2009 — has disappointed.


Photos: Packers' 2020 season in pictures

Check out photo galleries from every game of 2020 through the end of the regular season and the playoffs.

 

This article originally ran on madison.com.

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