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Packers LB Oren Burks ‘feels great’ after pectoral injury limited him in 2019

The athletic Packers linebacker was never the same after his preseason injury last year, which helps explain why he saw almost no playing time on defense during the season.

NFL: OCT 27 Packers at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Football minds can debate the reasons behind the Green Bay Packers’ heavy usage of dime personnel over the past two years, and many have done so. Mike Pettine’s defense has been heavily predicated on playing a safety in the box as a second off-ball linebacker, with players like Josh Jones, Raven Greene, and Ibraheim Campbell manning that role at different times over the past few years.

However, the debate comes down to preference vs. necessity. The linebacker whose skill set is best-suited to playing the weak-side linebacker position, or Will, is Oren Burks, the team’s 2018 draft pick and a former college safety himself. Burks’ athletic ability should have been in play at that position last year, when he was slated to start next to Blake Martinez, but a torn pectoral muscle early in the preseason effectively ended that plan. Indeed, it was the second straight season that he suffered a major injury in the preseason and was effectively relegated to a special teams-only role, as he dislocated his shoulder late in his rookie training camp.

Those injuries effectively forced Pettine’s hand, particularly in passing situations for which the team did not have a reliable coverage linebacker. But this year, Burks is hoping that things will be different, as he told reporters on Tuesday. “Coming off of two years with injuries in preseason, definitely tough to get started with the season with a major setback,” Burks said. “But (I) just have a mindset of trying to grow and get better and trying to add value to the team.”

He did that the best he could last season, getting a second opinion on his pec and deciding to forego surgery. However, that impact did not come on defense, as he played only 57 snaps. “(I was) able to get back on the field and add value to the team on special teams ... that was a tough time because you’re kind of in between, don’t know if it’s going to be season-ending or a few weeks.”

Burks is now excited for the season — he used that word repeatedly on Tuesday to describe his feelings during this training camp — and he believes that more and more repetitions in practice will be what he needs to help him keep improving in the mental aspects of the game. He said that he feels that the game is “slowing down” now as he is more able to focus on the details of Pettine’s scheme, in which he has played since his rookie season.

The third-year pro also spends time picking the brain of his new partner in the middle of the defense, Christian Kirksey, who has spent time playing for Pettine as well as a host of defensive coordinators in four years with the Cleveland Browns. “(I) learned a lot of wisdom from him,” Burks said as he complimented the veteran’s communication skills. “He’s kind of picked the best things from those defenses.”

Still, staying healthy is the most important factor for Burks, and he’s ready for the rigors of a full season. This is the best I’ve felt in a long time physically ... I’m just feeling really great about this year.”

If he delivers on the potential that he has and can stay on the field this fall, that should help answer whether Pettine wants to a safety in that spot or if he has just wanted a healthy Burks all along.