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Packers 2019 Training Camp Roster: Impact of ILB unit hinges on first and second-year players

The development of Oren Burks, in particular, figures to factor heavily into the play of the middle of the defense.

Green Bay Packers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Since the conclusion of the 2018 season, the Green Bay Packers’ roster has changed significantly. A large group of free agents, draft picks, and undrafted rookies will come to training camp to challenge for roster spots and roles on the team’s 53-man roster. Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company will break down the roster position by position and reveal our compiled predictions for the 53-man roster.

Predicting the performance of the inside linebacker position has been a difficult proposition for the Packers in recent years. Last year alone, Green Bay lost Jake Ryan early in training camp before trading for Antonio Morrison in late August. They also continued to use safeties in the box on passing downs in Mike Pettine’s first year with the defense. While the latter trend is expected to continue in 2019 with players like Raven Greene and Josh Jones, the personnel looks a little different.

Gone are Morrison and Ryan and leading the new charge are players primarily in their first two seasons. While a mainstay in Blake Martinez returns to captain the group, the impact of the position remains a relative unknown once again heading into the exhibition slate.

Blake Martinez

Experience: Entering fourth year
2018 stats: 16 games played with 16 starts, 144 combined tackles, 10 tackles for loss, five sacks, three passes defensed
How acquired: Selected in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft (137th overall)

The Green Bay Packers have found a number of gems in the fourth round in the past five seasons and Martinez represents one of those critical finds. The fourth-year pro started all 16 games for the second-straight season and posted a career-best 144 tackles and five sacks. Martinez’s near-Pro Bowl play and usage in blitz packages was one of few bright spots on the Packers’ defense a year ago.

The 2019 season, however, is an important one for Martinez, who enters a contract year in which a repeat of his 2018 campaign could earn him a hefty pay day. The stability of Martinez has been a key factor over the past several seasons for Green Bay and his leadership will be paramount to the Packers’ success once again. With a frame that added 15 pounds of muscle to support the rushing defense, Martinez will look to make increased stops closer to the line of scrimmage this upcoming season.

Oren Burks

Experience: Entering second year
2018 stats: 14 games played with four starts, 24 combined tackles
How acquired: Selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft (88th overall)

Few defensive newcomers raised more eyebrows in preseason action last year than Burks after being drafted in the third round out of Vanderbilt. Though a bit undersized, his speed to get sideline to sideline and help in pass coverage figured to be an asset for the Packers’ defense. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury in the third preseason game, which led to Burks being inactive for the first two regular season games, stunted his development as a rookie.

While Burks appeared in all 14 other games his first season, the majority of his snaps came on special teams. Burks was on the field for just 11% of defensive plays in 2018 as he gave way to Morrison on running downs and Josh Jones on passing plays. While he was considered a bit raw coming out of college, Burks’ ineffectiveness last season raised concerns about him living up to the Packers’ draft investment. Without question, the Packers need to see more consistency from Burks in his second year with an inexperienced group of inside linebackers. The athleticism and intelligence is there for Burks to make the second-year jump, but can his play speed catch up to his physical speed?

James Crawford

Experience: Entering second year
2018 stats: 16 games played, nine combined tackles, one fumble recovery
How acquired: Signed as “street” free agent in 2018

A bit of a surprise keep at the end of training camp last season after signing later in the summer, Crawford will look to battle for a roster spot once again. While he logged just one defensive snap in 2018, Crawford was a core special teams player, appearing on 70% of the team’s snaps. Special teams value remains an essential for the Packers’ backup linebackers and that ability plays right into Crawford’s wheelhouse.

A full offseason should have helped Crawford polish his knowledge on the defensive side of the ball, and a second season in Green Bay would most definitely see him in the middle of the defense more frequently. Though he is expected to have fierce competition from the team’s two new additions, Crawford’s play during OTAs was encouraging and the Illinois product will look to carry over his success in offseason camp to the preseason.

Ty Summers

Experience: Rookie
2018 stats (TCU): 10 games played, 46 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, four sacks
How acquired: Selected in the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft (226th overall)

Green Bay has not invested a high draft pick on the inside linebacker position since selecting AJ Hawk in the first round and instead has looked to late-round picks and undrafted free agents to fill key roles. The draft choice of Summers plays right into that philosophy as a fast, athletic ‘backer the Packers were willing to bet on.

The pre-draft book on Summers was that his play speed does not always match his game speed, but the rookie was a productive force over four seasons with the Horned Frogs. Energy and play strength as a run defender are the calling cards for Summers, who could carve out a role on early downs for the Packers while contributing as a core special teams player. Still, Summers was a value pick for Green Bay in the seventh round and the Packers hope that he will become another third-day steal at inside linebacker.

Curtis Bolton

Experience: Rookie
2018 stats (Oklahoma): 14 games played, 142 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries
How acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent in 2019

A number of undrafted free agents will fight for limited roster spots in Green Bay’s training camp and Bolton may be among the early favorites to secure one. After limited action with the Sooners his first three seasons, Bolton burst onto the scene as a senior and racked up an impressive number of defensive stops, especially behind the line of scrimmage.

Bolton may need to bulk up for the NFL game at just 218 pounds in order to hold up against blockers and as a tackler, but he showed the tools to be an effective blitzer and cover man last season. The Packers hosted Bolton for a pre-draft visit after he tore up his Pro Day and Bolton will have plenty of opportunity to impress in camp.