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Packers 2019 OLB Acquisitions: Why was Kendall Donnerson inactive down the stretch?

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With the team eliminated from the playoffs, the rookie was never active on gameday, prompting APC to wonder why.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Over a two week span, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2018 season. Tuesday’s analysis looks at the outside linebacker group.

In the 2018 offseason, many who cover the Green Bay Packers believed that outside linebacker was one of if not the most pressing need for the team on defense. Cornerback was a priority, to be sure, but finding some edge rushers with Clay Matthews aging and in the final year of his contract seemed a necessary plan.

Instead, the Packers added just one new face to the group, suiting up just four players at outside linebacker all season long. They did get some surprising development from third-year pro Kyler Fackrell, but the team added just a single player to the group by the end of the 2018 NFL Draft, and that player did not suit up for a single game all season. The fact that he did not take the field for one snap in the regular season is one of the more puzzling personnel questions that came out of the end of the 2018 season.

Kendall Donnerson

How acquired: 2018 seventh-round draft pick (#248 overall)
Active Contract: Two years, $1.05 million
Rookie Contract: Four years, $2.531 million, $70,952 signing bonus (terminated when Donnerson was released at the end of training camp)
2018 Stats: Not active for any games

Kendall Donnerson’s name was one that Packers fans should have known in advance of the 2018 NFL Draft. Green Bay brought the Southeast Missouri State edge rusher in for an official visit after seeing him post a ridiculous workout at Missouri Western’s Pro Day in early April. There, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Donnerson ran his 40-yard dash in under 4.50 seconds while showing absurd explosiveness with a 1.55-second time in the first ten yards, a 40-inch vertical, and a 10-foot-11 broad jump.

That athleticism had Packers fans and this writer in particular salivating, and when the team selected him with their final pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, it seemed a match made in heaven. Although Donnerson would need polishing as a pass-rusher, he had physical tools that would put him in elite company among defensive backs, let alone edge rushers.

It was hardly surprising, though, that the Packers cut Donnerson at the end of training camp. He played little and produced even less in the preseason, though he was not really able to let loose his physical abilities. Still, getting him back on the practice squad to develop his technique and the mental aspects of his game was the ideal situation, and that’s exactly what the team did.

Then, with four games remaining in the regular season and just a few days after the team fired head coach Mike McCarthy, Donnerson got his call-up to the 53-man roster. Nick Perry had landed on injured reserve a few weeks earlier, giving the Packers just three healthy outside linebackers. They also had received just 14 sacks from their edge rushers to that point in the season. It would seem like a perfect situation to

At that time, however, the 4-7-1 Packers still had a theoretical shot at the postseason and weren’t ready to just play their young players for developmental purposes. That’s fine for a game or two, but after the Packers lost to the Bears to fall to 5-8-1 and officially get eliminated from the postseason, they had two remaining games to play out the string.

Donnerson was still inactive for both.

Instead of playing this athletic wonder, the team left him in street clothes and kept everyone outside the building wondering why they refused to activate him. Kyler Fackrell, Reggie Gilbert, and Clay Matthews played 113, 88, and 79 snaps respectively over those last two games. Why in the world didn’t Donnerson get 30 to 40 of those reps?

Perhaps the team promoted him simply to avoid seeing him sign with another team, knowing that they were only ever going to stash him for 2019 and beyond. Perhaps he was still just that far behind on his learning curve that they did not trust him to take the field yet, even in meaningless games.

Packers fans will be left wondering about the answers until OTAs at the earliest, and in all likelihood until the start of training camp. Even if the team brings in new blood at the outside linebacker position — an inevitability this offseason, especially given the talent in the top end of the 2019 NFL Draft class — Donnerson’s tools should still give him a chance to contribute. Here’s hoping that after spending a full spring in the Packers’ offseason program, he’ll be ready for a role as a situational pass-rush specialist in 2019.