Continuing a multi-part series breaking down the Green Bay Packers’ 90-man roster, Acme Packing Company examines the inside linebacker position before revealing the pre-camp predictions for the team’s 2017 53-man roster.
Since the days of Desmond Bishop and a younger, rangier A.J. Hawk, the Packers have lacked dynamic playmakers at the inside linebacker position. While the play hasn't always dipped to the level of Brad Jones, the position has consistently revealed itself as a weak point in Dom Capers defense over the past five years.
Green Bay didn't make any wild changes to the group entering 2017, relying on development from their young linebackers to strengthen the unit. That strategy has paid dividends in numerous areas during general manager Ted Thompson's tenure, but it hasn't seemed to do the trick for this position.
Noticeably absent from the discussion is Josh Jones, the Packers' second-round pick this past April. Though the team expects him to contribute as an off-ball linebacker as a rookie, Acme Packing Company categorized him as a safety for the pre-training camp roster breakdown.
How acquired: Fourth-round pick (No. 129 overall), 2015
When the Packers made their first concerted effort to revamp their inside linebackers since the demise of the Bishop/Hawk tandem, they made Michigan stalwart Jake Ryan one of the central pieces of the rebuilt unit. Ryan played most of his college career as an outside linebacker, a de facto pass-rusher in the Wolverines' scheme at the time. However, a torn ACL suffered his junior year resulted in Ryan playing mostly off the ball during his final 12 collegiate appearances. Green Bay saw his potential as an explosive, backfield-attacking "Mike" and selected him in early on Day 3 of the 2015 NFL Draft.
As a pro, Ryan hasn't displayed the playmaking skills he showcased at Michigan. However, he has become a reliable tackler and a key piece of a run defense that started last season at a historic pace before injuries elsewhere caused it to fade down the stretch. The expectations for the young linebacker elevate again entering his third season, a time when other players at his position tend to take one of the biggest performance leaps of their careers.
How acquired: Fourth-round pick (No. 133 overall), 2016
Like Ryan, Blake Martinez joined the Packers as an early Day 3 pick. Unlike his Green Bay teammate, Martinez entered the league expected to spend more time in coverage than crashing the backfield. He excelled in that facet while at Stanford, and his new team hoped that skill set would translate to the league.
Instead, Martinez endured an up-and-down rookie season. He started out as one of the most-hyped young players in Packers training camp, earning a starting role for the season opener and maintaining it for most of the early portions of the season. An MCL sprain cost him multiple games, but Martinez's play dipped before he suffered the injury. Now with his first full offseason as a pro, he has the opportunity to iron out some of those deficiencies and win a starting role again.
How acquired: Signed off Cowboys' practice squad, 2015
After earning a roster spot that many assumed would go to Sam Barrington last season, Joe Thomas managed not only to become a regular on the defense but also expand his role to de facto starter as the Packers' primary coverage linebacker. Thomas didn't excel in that role, but he didn't embarrass himself either. Weight added during the preceding offseason allowed him to become one of the heaviest hitters on Green Bay's defense, a physicality that the unit has lacked at times during Capers' tenure.
Thomas doesn't have a guaranteed spot in 2017. Still, with Martinez no sure bet to develop as a cover man and Ryan serving in a different capacity, Thomas should return for the regular season if he maintains or even builds on his gains from a year ago.
How acquired: Signed as free agent, 2016
A late add during the 2016 season, Jordan Tripp became a regular on special teams and an occasional defensive contributor. Tripp doesn't offer much upside, but his athleticism -- arguably best among the returning full-time inside linebackers -- makes him a unique player in Green Bay. He has a strong chance to make the roster again this year.
How acquired: Signed to practice squad, 2016
Derrick Matthews has yet to make a 53-man roster, but he has spent time with multiple teams including Washington. His size -- 6-foot, 232 pounds -- makes him relatively small for an off-ball linebacker. However, with the Packers and other teams shifting towards smaller, rangier players in the middle of their defense, his physical tools could translate as he continues to acclimate.
How acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent, 2017
As a converted fullback from Division II's Washburn University, Cody Heiman has a sizable adjustment to make as an NFL hopeful. At the same time, few linebackers from any background possess the athleticism Heiman offers. Perhaps no undrafted player in Green Bay has more upside or likelihood of variance in play, which makes him one of the most intriguing rookies on the team this year.