He is a bit of a forgotten man in the Green Bay Packers’ 2018 draft class. While much of the attention has been heaped upon the two cornerbacks drafted early, the three wide receivers drafted late, and the unusual selections of a punter and long snapper, third-round pick Oren Burks has received relatively little fanfare so far in the eleven days since the Packers traded up to pick him 88th overall.
However, Burks’ unusual skill set for his position makes him a candidate to make an early impact in Mike Pettine’s defense.
Among off-ball linebackers, Burks is a bit of an oddity. According to Mockdraftable.com, Burks is in the 20th percentile of off-ball linebackers in three measurements: weight (233 pounds), bench press reps (18), and hand size (9-1/8 inches). However, every other testing measurement saw him come in at the 82nd percentile or better among his peers. In fact, he was in the 90th percentile or above in height (6-foot-3-1/8), vertical (39-1/2 inches), broad jump (10-foot-11), and the 3-cone drill (6.82 seconds).
Essentially, Burks is a bigger, slightly slower, much quicker version of Josh Jones, the Packers’ second-round draft pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Last year, Jones played much of the first half of his rookie season at the weak-side inside linebacker spot before moving to safety full-time. With the Packers appearing to commit to Jones sticking at safety this summer, Burks should have an opportunity to earn some snaps as an immediate contributor at that same Will position this fall.
It makes sense to compare the two players; after all, Burks started his college career as a safety before becoming a hybrid safety/linebacker and finally moving to linebacker full-time as a senior. In essence, the Packers drafted a player who has remarkable physical gifts for a linebacker and who has only scratched the surface of what he can become at that position.
Those physical traits are what make Burks so intriguing for Packers fans and presumably for new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as well. Athletic, pass-catching tight ends are some of the most difficult players to defend due to their size and speed, and this is precisely where Burks comes in.
Rarely does one find linebackers with Burks’ height having the kind of movement skills he possesses. An obvious role for him early on will be as an off-ball linebacker on passing downs, allowing him to use his coverage instincts from his time as a safety against the tight end. Thinking back to the past few years, this is a role that Joe Thomas often played, but here’s the difference: Burks is two-and-a-half inches taller than Thomas, he timed over a tenth-second faster in the 40, and his agility testing was around a half-second faster in each prominent drill. Thomas was a decent player, but his limitations made him a liability in these situations.
In short, it’s much easier to imagine Burks matching up successfully with a tight end who stands 6-foot-5 than it is for Thomas.
If Burks can indeed earn a role early on on third downs, that in turn frees up Jones to focus entirely on learning the safety position, where he looked a bit outmatched last season. This would also give Pettine more flexibility in how he can deploy his coverage packages, as he has multiple players who he can use to cover the tight end.
Let us not forget, either, that the Packers traded up for Burks in round three. They clearly had him identified as a priority player on their board in the middle rounds, and it is feasible to imagine them taking him had they not traded the 76th selection to move back up in round one of the draft. Furthermore, the pick made Burks the first off-ball linebacker that the Packers had drafted before day three of the draft since A.J. Hawk in 2006.
All of this means that Burks should have opportunities to contribute on defense immediately and put his natural abilities to good use. It also means that Mike Pettine has another versatile weapon to deploy on defense, which will surely make the intense coach happy.