For once, the “next man up” for the Green Bay Packers after losing starting linebacker Jake Ryan won’t be an undrafted free agent or late-round rookie who has to come in and overcome long odds to be a contributor.
He’s still a rookie (what did you expect, really?) but third-round pick Oren Burks will get the first shot to replace Ryan inside. The luxury of throwing a pedigreed player out there amid a major injury isn’t one the Packers have recently had, but it actually could be the undrafted free agent hoping to overcome long odds who interjects himself into the conversation.
Ahmad Thomas wasn’t quite fast or athletic enough to be a consistent NFL safety. But his athletic measurables would all put him on the plus side of linebackers according to the aggregate data in mockdraftable.com’s database. These types of conversions have become commonplace in the NFL, with guys like Mark Barron, Deone Bucannon and others making the switch to handle spread offenses in the league.
On Wednesday, Mike Pettine called out Thomas by name (he referred to Burks as “the rookie”) for his coverage ability and he’s already made some splash plays. His pass break up of Brett Hundley ended a drive last week in practice and he has stood out with his ability to play in space.
In his press conference Thursday, Mike McCarthy also mentioned the versatility of Thomas. “He’s done a lot of good things. He definitely has the coverage ability, especially at the Will spot, that we’re looking for,” McCarthy said, adding he’d like to see what Thomas can do as a special teams player.
Green Bay has valued precisely this type of player in the past. Joe Thomas stuck on this roster as an undersized linebacker because of his speed, dime package ability, and special teams talent. He had to start eight games over the last two seasons, including seven in 2016 due to injuries in the linebacking corps.
A different Thomas could become that player for the Packers in 2018.
Right now, just Blake Martinez and Burks appear to be locks to make the 53-man roster. Even if Quinten Rollins wins the dime linebacker job, it seems impossible the Packers would only keep their starters plus Rollins. Even before Ryan’s injury, one of these young backup linebackers had a good chance to make the team. Now, that’s all but a guarantee.
Pettine mentioned his openness to adding a veteran and one report linked the Packers to former 49ers star NaVorro Bowman, but Brian Gutekunst said earlier in the week they’ll let the young guys have a chance to win the job.
For now, that means Burks, but Thomas has a chance, with his coverage ability and experience—he was on the practice squad for the Packers near the end of last season—to be a contributor on this defense, not just to make the 53-man roster. Any kind of impact on special teams would seal his spot, earning him even more chances to make plays in Green Bay.
Coincidentally, the Packers signed Thomas to their practice squad last November after he’d initially been signed as a UDFA in Oakland, the same place Bowman played last season. That little experience may not seem like much, but one of the reasons so many players make a jump in year 2 is the institutional knowledge gained about how to be a pro, how to prepare, and then spending a full offseason in a professional program. Plus, the coaches have a better understanding of what he can do after seeing him in practice and getting to know him as a person. Those are unquantifiable benefits, but they do matter.
Thomas has added some weight, up to 220 from around 214 and with his 6-foot frame, he looks thick enough to be a linebacker in the NFL. Green Bay drafted Burks for his versatility and ability to cover. That’s a skill we’ve already seen from Thomas with each players moving from safety to linebacker; Burks simply did it in college.
We’re a long way from saying Thomas has a chance to compete for a starting job, but he’s playing himself into the conversation to earn reps. The “next man up” premise doesn’t account for quality. Whoever the next guy is, he has to play. The Packers have their preferred option in Burks, and the luxury of having another guy who just might play his way onto the field.