Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2015 season. Today, we examine the inside linebackers. Follow along with all of our positional breakdowns here.
Finding consistent, effective players at inside linebacker has been a constant struggle for the Green Bay Packers over the past few years. They have relied on aging veterans, tried to move players inside from the outside linebacker spot, and dealt with numerous injuries, all of which has left the team without a true tandem in the middle to rely on regularly.
In 2016, the Packers may have their best chance at an effective pair of true inside backers since Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk patrolled the middle in the team's run to Super Bowl XLV. (And yes, I am indeed saying that Hawk was effective that season.) Sam Barrington appears set to return from the season-ending foot injury that he suffered in week one, while a rookie - the highest-drafted 3-4 inside linebacker ever drafted by Ted Thompson - came on late in the 2015 season to show that he belongs in the league and can develop into a very good starter.
Of course, there is always room for improvement at the position, especially with Clay Matthews set to return to the outside, but the two new faces at the position in 2015 made vital contributions to the defense as a whole and at least one of them will be counted on to do so again moving forward.
How acquired: 4th-round draft pick (#129 overall)
2015 Stats: 14 games played, 5 starts; 50 total tackles (35 solo), one fumble recovery
Ryan began his career as most mid- to late-round Packers draftees do: contributing on special teams while earning a few snaps here and there on defense. Those were essentially the expectations for him in year one. However, once Nate Palmer was removed from the starting role, Ryan took over the job and showed very good instincts and solid tackling ability that made him worthy of a fourth-round pick. While solid against the run, Ryan has his limitations in coverage, something which he acknowledged after the season and which often led to him being replaced in the dime package during obvious passing situations.
Still, Ryan's rookie season is a sign that he is capable of absorbing information quickly and being an effective starter in time - something the team has not been able to see in Palmer or 2014 fourth-round pick Carl Bradford. Even Barrington only began starting midway through his second year and was penciled in as a full-time starter for training camp of his third; Ryan is a full year ahead of that schedule, which should be seen as a good sign for the young linebacker.
How acquired: signed to active roster from Cowboys' practice squad following week 2
2015 stats: 14 games played; 26 total tackles (23 solo), 1.0 sack, one forced fumble
Thomas was the coverage backer, playing the complementary role to Ryan. The more fluid and athletic of the two players, he was often used as the sole off-ball linebacker in the dime, with Matthews rushing off the edge.
Thomas has had an interesting career path with the Packers. He was initially signed as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2014, but suffered an injury in training camp and was waived with an injury settlement. He was brought back on the practice squad midway through that season and spent all offseason with the Packers before being cut at the end of training camp. The Dallas Cowboys then signed him to the practice squad, but the Packers scooped him back up following Barrington's injury.
For a situational player, Thomas played well, even contributing a bit in pass rush as well as in coverage. Thomas should again fight for a roster spot in training camp, likely competing with a new face or two as well as Bradford from the practice squad.