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Packers 2018 roster prediction: Scant ILB numbers reflect modern NFL

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Just three true inside linebackers are projected to make the final 53-man roster and one played safety in college.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
How important are inside linebackers going to be under Mike Pettine’s new defensive scheme?
Jim Matthews-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the prediction section of the offseason. Over two weeks, Acme Packing Company will present our overall roster predictions for the Green Bay Packers’ season-opening 53-man roster. Today, we continue with the Packers’ inside linebackers.

Any discussion about linebackers in the 2018 NFL ends up sounding like a stoned existential screed from your college roommate. I mean what even is a linebacker ya know?

In fact, it’s probably not even fair to put Jake Ryan on the list with the starters considering how often the Packers will play in sub-package personnel this season. Is he even going to play 45% of snaps?

Over the last decade, offenses spread out, taking advantage of the added space and the inferior athletes on defense. Under the traditional NFL paradigm, linebackers could thump inside and be dominant players. Run defense and instincts were the ticket to the Pro Bowl.

Looking at the APC staff projections of the inside linebacker position, rostering just three inside ‘backers would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago. But new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will likely use Josh Jones as a de facto linebacker at times, playing in the box and as an overhang defender. Kentrell Brice could do the same as Pettine looks to go multiple safety looks.

There’s a legitimate case to be made Jones belongs on this list. Instead, a former safety Oren Burks will have to do. And as mentioned earlier, this list is based on a base 3-4 defense with two inside linebackers, but it seems unlikely they’ll be in that base package even half the time.

Starters: Blake Martinez, Jake Ryan

Martinez serves as the only lock in the this category if what we really mean is a player who plays most of the snaps inside. In his breakout season, Martinez played 93% of defensive snaps, easily the most on this defense in 2017.

Ryan, battling injuries, played roughly 48% of defensive snaps. With injuries to Ryan and Morgan Burnett hurting the opportunities to play the Nitro package, this sample may not be a good proxy for what to expect this season in a new defensive scheme under Pettine.

In fact, I made the case earlier this summer it should be Burks, not Ryan who gets the snaps next to Martinez in base. Putting him next to Martinez means “base” is already sub-package with a rangy overhang defender already playing in the box. Whether he’s called a linebacker or a safety (or a “star” as they call it in college) doesn’t matter.

Backups: Oren Burks

Speaking of Burks, he’s likely to start the season playing the dime linebacker spot originally slotted for Josh Jones after he was drafted last year. Clearly the Packers want that player to be a speedy player regardless of size. That ideological goal feels like the kind of thing that crosses the stream of defensive coordinators.

Putting Burks on the field to take Ryan off doesn’t sacrifice much in the way of run defense because the front is so stout and Burks offers much better range and coverage ability even as a rookie. He may not be getting “base” snaps early on, but it’s going to be hard to keep him off the field against teams that like to play with three and four receivers.

Released: Greer Martini, Paris Bennett, Marcus Porter, Ahmad Thomas

There will be a tremendous opportunity for practice squad players from this group. Even with the league’s shift away from traditional linebackers, any team still needs bodies. Special teams players also often come from the linebacker/safety group. That means one of these players has a chance to sneak onto the roster for his backup and special teams value.

More than one of our APC staffers picked a player from this group to make the final 53 under such circumstances. Martini and Thomas each received votes there and it’s possible one could be a player who gets a spot vacated by Aaron Jones’ suspension or Bryan Bulaga starting the season on PUP.

Exhibition season provides the ideal circumstances for inside linebackers to show off their instincts because the game plans and plays are remedial versions of what they’ll see in the regular season. It’s “find ball, hit ball.” And with such little live hitting in training camp, those games are really the only place where defenders can prove their worth as impact tacklers.