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Packers Friday Musings: Kamal Martin’s injury hurts, but opens the door again for other ILBs

The rookie middle linebacker was poised for a big role to begin the season, but a few returners are granted additional opportunities by his injury.

NFL: JUL 31 Packers Training Camp Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the NFL season now less than one week away, the Green Bay Packers face their annual cut-down to 53 players by mid-afternoon on Saturday.

However, unlike most years, the Packers will have a little more flexibility with a practice squad capped at 16 players rather than 10. Perhaps that extension will provide for a less surprising Saturday than in years past with undrafted rookies finding more of a home on the practice squad than the final roster itself.

Also affecting the roster numbers might be a recent injury on defense. Today’s musings look into that loss, while also predicting one surprise roster keep and the battle for bragging rights between two divisional pass-rushing units.

Kamal Martin’s knee injury dampens a promising camp for the rookie

Inside linebacker was already a position with a spotlight on it heading into this season with Blake Martinez exiting and Christian Kirksey entering. But there was a sense of even greater optimism surrounding fifth-round pick Kamal Martin, a quieter pickup in the draft, who was having an excellent start to his Packers career this summer.

Unfortunately, the injury bug struck this week, as Martin reportedly underwent surgery for a torn meniscus and is expected to be out at least six weeks. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher drew rave reviews as a quick study in the offseason and for his length, speed, and athleticism in making plays in the backfield as a run-stopper. While it is hard to judge a player before seeing the field, especially without a preseason, it is fair to say that Martin would have earned some rather quick playing time. In fact, his quick rise was reminiscent of a rookie Oren Burks prior to Burks’ own injury as a rookie.

While Martin should be expected to return this season, his leave of absence allows other young inside linebackers additional opportunities to impress. Ty Summers should be a key beneficiary of Martin’s injury, expecting to gain some extended playing time in his second season. However, the setback may have saved a job in Green Bay for Burks, who was quickly becoming lost in the shuffle and may have been the most non-surprising of potential surprise camp cuts. The Packers have the bodies to overcome Martin’s injury with several safeties also able to step into the box on passing downs, but the hype Martin created is dampened by the injury.

Who will have the better pass-rushing group - Green Bay or Minnesota?

What a difference that a year can make. Green Bay was desperately looking for pass rush help for several seasons but struck gold with Za’Darius and Preston Smith last season. With the Smith Brothers back, Rashan Gary’s strong camp, and a group of high-upside developmental players, the Packers just might boast the NFC North’s best group of pass rushers.

The Minnesota Vikings may challenge the Packers for that status in 2020, however. The trade for Yannick Ngakoue to pair with Danielle Hunter makes the Vikings’ defensive end position dangerous again, even with Everson Griffen gone. Hunter put together another Pro Bowl season in 2019 after notching 14.5 sacks for the second consecutive season, while Ngakoue has never posted less than eight sacks in his four NFL seasons. Behind Hunter and Ngakoue is another formidable sack artist in third-year pro Ifeadi Odenigbo, who is coming off a seven-sack season. Over the past decade, the Vikings have not been shy to acquire pass rushers via trades and top-three round draft picks, and the trade for Ngakoue makes them a force again for the next few seasons.

Malik Taylor is my biggest surprise keep on the 53-man roster

It has been harder than ever before to gain any sort of inside knowledge on the Packers’ younger players and newcomers during an unusual offseason and camp with media restrictions. While I do believe one undrafted free agent, Stanford Samuels, will crack the final roster, Malik Taylor may be my biggest surprise on the list.

When the Packers did not select a receiver during the draft, I found it rather eye-opening that General Manager Brian Gutekunst named Malik Taylor as one of several young receivers he liked on the current roster in his press conference. Without Devin Funchess this season, the Packers have plenty of room for a receiver to emerge outside of returners Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, Jake Kumerow, and Equanimeous St. Brown. Taylor, as a practice squad holdover, brings some size and speed to the position and the blessing of a year in the offense already. He has been given some compliments as a run blocker and may even carve out a special teams role, a huge bonus as a bubble player. While the practice squad could ultimately be his home again, Taylor might just find his way on to the active roster.