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Packers 2020 Grades: Young blood moves ILBs from utter failure to acceptable mediocrity

But there’s still work to be done.

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NFC Championship - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Over two weeks, 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 2020 season. Today, we examine the inside linebackers.

Among the analytics set, inside linebackers are considered something along the line of “running backs of the defense.” They don’t require the speed/power combo of their outside cousins, you don’t need as many of them as you do corners, and given how often modern defenses play nickel/dime defense, they’re sometimes not on the field at all.

While I typically adhere to the beliefs of the stat nerds of the world, the Packers make this one tough. After all, with better, faster inside linebackers, they make a Super Bowl over the Kaepernick 49ers. In the infamous 2014 NFC Championship Game against Seattle, Clay Matthews spent much of his time playing, and being more valuable, inside than out, and it was only when he was hurt late that Seattle mounted their comeback, and won the game.

The Packers have a history of losing due to lack of talent at the position and being stymied on offense by defenses specifically because they are strong at the position (see Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2020). Green Bay has perhaps adhered too closely to the analytics orthodoxy here, but at least in 2020 they managed to achieve competence.

Starters

Krys Barnes

13 games, 10 starts
80 total tackles, 5 tackles for loss
1 sack, 1 QB hit, 1 forced fumble

After signing as an undrafted free agent out of UCLA, Barnes was, surprisingly, one of the two opening day starters at inside linebacker. Part of this was due to 5th round pick Kamal Martin having surgery to repair a torn meniscus, which cost him the first 6 weeks of the season, but just as importantly, Barnes was clearly better than the alternatives.

The recurring problem with Packer inside linebackers generally is their struggles in coverage, where Barnes is no exception. He ranked 69th of 77 linebackers in coverage per Pro Football Focus, but he did show exceptional speed and quickness when going East and West, and running backs were rarely able to beat him to the edge. For a smaller linebackers, Barnes was also a sure tackler, though his size and a bout with Covid did knock him out of games occasionally.

Expecting an undrafted free agent to be anything other than average is asking a lot, and Barnes showed plenty of potential. He has the speed to develop into a better coverage linebacker and he is immensely superior to Ty Summers and Oren Burks. While he’s not an ideal starter, he provides excellent depth, and could develop into something more.

Christian Kirksey

11 games, 11 starts
77 total tackles, 2 tackles for loss
2 sacks, 2 QB hit, 1 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, 4 passes defended

Kirksey is an interesting player. He originally broke in with Cleveland under Mike Pettine after the Browns selected him in the 3rd round. He was a typical Pettine player, as an undersized linebacker with outstanding speed.

Unfortunately, a hamstring injury and recurring issues with his chest seem to have robbed him of some athleticism, as one of his season lowlights was failing to catch Kirk Cousins from behind. That said, Kirksey did a nice job adjusting to his limitations and redefining himself as a North-South thumper, capable of occasionally getting to the quarterback and even providing savvy coverage in zone.

It would be interesting to see what 2020 Kirksey’s brain could do in 2015 Kirksey’s body, and as he’s still under 30, there’s probably some small hope of that happening. That said, there’s a much greater chance of further physical decline, and while Kirksey managed to pluck a few interceptions (one of which was a tipped ball, and the other coming after a hit on the quarterback affected the throw), he’s unlikely to provide acceptable pass coverage going forward.

Kirksey is getting by on veteran savvy and he may have a few decent years left in him, but his PFF grades fell off a cliff after 2017 and shoulder issues never seem to go away. He put a few nice hits on opposing running backs and had some nice big moments, but they could do better.

Backups

Kamal Martin

10 games, 6 starts
24 total tackles, 3 tackles for loss
1 Sack, 1 QB hit

The 5th round pick out of Minnesota didn’t work out at the combine due to a knee injury and missed the first six games of the season due to meniscus surgery suffered late in training camp. This is likely why he was available in the 5th, and the Packers may have a bit of a steal on their hands. While Kirksey is in decline and Barnes is limited by size and talent, Martin appears to have the physical tools to be a true difference-maker at the position.

Martin was the Packers’ highest graded inside linebacker per PFF, and it wasn’t particularly close. You may remember a few thunderous hits in the hole as Martin definitely had his share of impressive hits, but he really shined in pass coverage, where he was able to get into his drops quickly and finish any receiver unfortunate enough to enter his zone. Take this all with a grain of salt, because Martin’s snaps overall and in coverage were fairly limited, but he’s the only inside linebacker currently on the roster with the potential to be above average. Maybe even more.

As it stands, we’ll settle for Martin showing himself to be a promising young player, who flashed major talent in a small sample size.

Ty Summers

16 games
39 total tackles, 3 tackles for loss
1 pass defended

Ty Summers is, technically speaking, bigger than Krys Barnes, but where Barnes tends to finish his tackles, Summers routinely gives up those extra 2-3 yards and finishes on his back. He’s fairly fast and occasionally makes a nice play in pass coverage, but at the point of attack, he’s far too likely to lose the battle and he’s strictly a backup/special teamer.

It’s worth noting that Pro Football Focus actually liked his run defense, and much of this can be attributed to the fact that Summers actually does get to the ball quickly. What he does once there just isn’t good enough. Ty Summers is “just a guy.”

Oren Burks

16 games
21 total tackles, 1 tackles for loss
2 forced fumbles

Now in his third season, we know exactly what Oren Burks is. Originally taken way up in the 3rd round out of Vanderbilt, Burks is a truly elite athlete.

Unfortunately, he just doesn’t seem to process information quickly on the field, and his style of movement can only be described as “awkward.” Incredibly fast, but awkward. None of this held Burks back in college where he was often the best athlete on the field, but when he reached the NFL and the game sped up, Burks didn’t adjust. The soft skills are the hardest to scout and project, and the soft skills are where Burks has trouble.

By the way, none of this should be construed as a knock on Burks’ intelligence or work ethic. He is, by many accounts, among the smartest people on the team, and he is, by many accounts, an extremely hard worker. Burks is a valuable special teamer, and he does occasionally fill in admirably on defense, shooting upfield like a missile. He’s sort of the linebacker version of Jarrett Bush, who was good, and bad, at all of the same things.

He’s a good clubhouse guy, and a real difference maker on special teams. That should keep him around the league for a while.

James Burgess

4 games
3 tackles, 4 special teams tackles

Burgess originally signed with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He would play for them a second time as a member of the practice squad in 2018. Between those two stints, he would be signed, and waived by 4 other teams. Indeed, the Packers are his 9th team if we count Miami twice.

It wasn’t a long stint, as Burgess was placed on IR with a hamstring just a month after joining the team, and while on the active roster, he played almost exclusively on special teams. A real life example of the prototypical journeyman, “just a guy,” or the walking definition of a replacement level player, Burgess is small for the position and not athletically gifted enough to transition to safety, where his size would play better. Mike Pettine loves his tweeners, and so Burgess got another shot.

Finally, Burgess had one of the strangest Pro Day performances I’ve ever seen as captured by Relative Athletic Score, and I think it’s worth sharing.

I do not know how a player can be so slow after 10 yards and so fast after 20. How a player can jump so far, but not high. How you can dominate the 3-cone drill but struggle mightily in the shuttle. It seems physically impossible, but Burgess did it. He’s a free agent, and the only reason to think he might be back is that he’ll come very cheap.

Overall Grade: C

On offense, the quarterback and offensive coordinator can decide where they will focus their attack. That, too often, is the inside linebacker position for the Packers. Opposing OC’s have made a long tradition of getting good tight ends lined up on overmatched Packer ILBs or, alternatively, running it right down their throats.

For the first time in a long time, they were finally able to put up a fight. They unit especially excelled in stopping North-South runners like Derrick Henry, and their performance against the Titans was a huge highlight, but the group is still a work in progress and pass-catching running backs still ate them alive. They ranked 28th against the position per Football Outsiders.

If Kamal Martin can seize a starting spot and maintain his production over longer playing time, they’ll have a solid building block, and if they have to go back to Barnes/Kirksey for one more year, at least it won’t be a disaster. That won’t stop me from looking over longingly at Lavonte David, Devin White, and their rings.