Perhaps the biggest training camp battle from year to year for the Green Bay Packers is the battle to stay healthy.
The injury bug reared its ugly head once again on Monday, sidelining inside linebacker Jake Ryan for the season with a torn ACL according to Ian Rapoport. Fortunately, safety Kentrell Brice, who was also carted off the field during practice on the same day, received better than anticipated news on his ankle after x-rays were negative and he was seen present, but limping at practice on Tuesday.
The silver lining for the Packers is that they are prepared for this injury to Ryan, who was entering the final year of his rookie contract. Although they let Joe Thomas walk in the offseason, a number of young players, including third-round selection Oren Burks, will have a legitimate chance to provide depth behind rising incumbent starter Blake Martinez.
Burks is an obvious choice to jump into a prominent role in the 3-4 base defense. With Ryan nearing the end of his deal, the drafting of Burks seemed like a well-timed move for grooming a replacement. The rookie was stamped as a raw, developmental player coming out of Vanderbilt but one that carried plus size, athleticism, and coverage ability. APC’s Peter Bukowski noted how Burks’ versatility could be employed in a Mike Pettine defense and how Burks could overcome a few of Ryan’s deficiencies even prior to the injury. As seen in the tweet below, building depth and replacements from within is a paramount approach in Green Bay and the team should be expected to follow that route in the short-term with Burks.
#AsExpected, Oren Burks gets Jake Ryan’s reps at inside linebacker and Josh Jones on the field at safety where Kentrell Brice had been. #Packers GM Brian Gutekunst said this morning they were going to be patient with young guys and not go after vets at those spots.— Jason Wilde (@jasonjwilde) July 31, 2018
Behind Burks, Green Bay has several undrafted players that have drawn early intrigue during minicamps and the first week of training camp. Perhaps stealing most of the headlines is Greer Martini who impressed as a tryout player after going undrafted in April out of Notre Dame. Seemingly always near the ball, Martini caught the attention of media at rookie camps and earned some recognition from Inside Linebackers Coach Patrick Graham in mid-June. Moving into training camp, Martini has built on his strong showing by earning first-team reps on the special teams’ kickoff return and coverage units and filling in as a second-team inside linebacker before Ryan’s injury. Special teams can win roster spots for undrafted rookies, especially those showing promise and versatility at a position requiring extra depth.
Also hoping to make a name for themselves in Ryan’s absence are Marcus Porter and Ahmad Thomas. Porter profiles more firmly inside than outside and was one of the undrafted free agents that caught my eye early on after a really good pro day coming out of Division II Fairmont State. Size is not on Porter’s side at just a shade over six feet and 229 pounds, but he brings some pop as a tackler and has athletic tools to develop, whether that comes on the active roster or on the practice squad.
Thomas has an advantage over the previously mentioned rookies with experience gained on the Packers’ practice squad last season after entering the league with Oakland. A converted college safety at Oklahoma, Thomas made an impressive play in the two-minute drill last week after picking off Aaron Rodgers during OTAs in late May.
#Packers open OTA practice number 2=big day for @JaireAlexander and LB Ahmad Thomas; both had impressive picks of Rodgers— Chris Roth (@rothchris) May 31, 2018
Nice play by #Packers ILB Ahmad Thomas, cutting underneath TE Robert Tonyan to break up Brett Hundley’s pass on 4th down in 2 minute. Thomas has some athleticism at LB. Saw it there in coverage.— Ryan Wood (@ByRyanWood) July 27, 2018
Though Thomas shares the slender build of Porter that is somewhat reminiscent of a safety-linebacker tweener, his coverage ability as a former secondary player could make him a great option in sub-packages for the defense.
In previous seasons, an injury at inside linebacker would have been a major concern. But this setback seems a bit different than what Packers fans have become accustomed to. With several youthful options, the Packers have plenty of internal candidates to test for depth roles at inside linebacker. Josh Jones also presents a backup plan after playing his share of linebacker last season, though his safety role in the midst of the uncertainty surrounding Brice would appear to be the larger priority.
Live action in preseason will be more indicative of the capabilities of Burks and other rookie inside ‘backers. But for the time being, the Packers can afford to be patient with their developmental players without making a panicked decision on the free agent market.