Selecting an inside linebacker in the first two days of the NFL Draft has been rare for the Green Bay Packers since the Ted Thompson regime began in 2005. Until last year when they picked Oren Burks in the third round, the Packers had not chosen an off-ball linebacker within the first three rounds since pouncing on A.J. Hawk with the fifth overall choice of the 2006 NFL Draft (when the team still ran a 4-3 defense). And while Green Bay did also select Nick Barnett in the first round in 2003, inside linebacker has not been a position Green Bay has invested a marquee draft pick in with frequency.
However, many recent mock drafts have begun to predict LSU’s Devin White as a prospect of consideration for the 12th selection. A fierce tackler with range, White may not have elite athleticism but his football IQ and physicality more than make up for it. White’s strengths are the opposite of Burks, who tested well athletically but struggled to see the field for the Packers in year one due to issues with diagnosing plays and shedding blocks. The 6’1, 240-pound White forced three fumbles last season with the Tigers, while accumulating 25.5 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks over the past two seasons.
While Blake Martinez turned in another solid season for Green Bay after joining the team as a fourth-round pick in 2016, the Packers may still be searching for a dynamic, every-down presence next to him. And after watching the success of two of last year’s first-round inside linebackers — Roquan Smith and Leighton Vander Esch — become two Pro Bowl-level talents in their rookie seasons, what kind of instant impact would an elite linebacker make on the Packers?
The Packers have gotten by over the past decade without a stalwart manning the middle. Martinez and Jake Ryan were seen as safe and steady “football players” drafted in the fourth round who have gone on to fill NFL roles, but neither can offer the elite athleticism and disruptive tendency of many first-round prospects. Green Bay has tried to cover up some of those weaknesses with safeties in the box on passing downs to match up with tight ends in coverage and blitz with greater speed. Josh Jones was one such player, but his size and angles in pursuit of ballcarriers have left something to be desired at the linebacker position.
Enter a player of Roquan Smith’s capability and the Packers would have an all-around, tenacious middle linebacker for any down. Martinez had what many would consider to be a breakthrough year as a blitzer in 2018, racking up five sacks to go along with 144 tackles and 10 for a loss. Yet, in the same amount of games, Smith tallied 121 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and five sacks. That was as a rookie who missed all of his first training camp and first two preseason games with a contract holdout. Vander Esch also added 140 tackles and two stops in the backfield as a first-year player opposite Jaylon Smith. It should be noted that Smith (880) and Vander Esch (784) put up these numbers in considerably fewer snaps than Martinez (1,049). Comparing one defensive scheme to another can be apples to oranges, but both rookie linebackers roamed the field in multiple packages and were visible playmakers. Both of their teams saw a leap in run defense, as well as total defense, from 2017 to 2018.
White’s game is not quite as evolved as Smith’s was as a prospect but compares favorably in terms of size, competitive spirit and play speed, and adding him could transform the Packers’ defense. If Burks develops as Green Bay planned, then he would provide solid depth and insurance while a decision on Martinez’s contract looms in the near future. But White would give the Packers an instant starter with an attitude it sorely lacks and a player that can be lined up in the middle or the weak side depending on the package.
Interestingly enough, a second Devin — Devin Bush — is another potential late-first round option to consider. He, along with Alabama’s Mack Wilson, make up the second tier of inside linebackers after White. As a rangy, proficient cover man in third-down situations, Bush would complement Martinez, who continues to be utilized less and less in coverage. At just 5’11 and 222 pounds, Bush may not have the size to consistently withstand blockers in the box, but his speed and versatility would provide the tools needed for today’s NFL. The Packers tried to address this area with the Burks selection last year, but Bush would be a much quicker study in the pro game.
Green Bay has plenty of holes to fill this offseason and an outside linebacker might be the most glaring of them all. Help in the back end of the secondary is also a critical need to help the young cornerbacks on the roster and limit opposing aerial attacks. However, a playmaking inside linebacker should not be ignored this draft season, especially with the front-seven needing to find a meaner mentality.