The Green Bay Packers’ linebacker unit needs work. General manager Brian Gutekunst admitted as much in his season-ending press conference last week, when he noted that the team will need to take a long look at that unit this offseason. Blake Martinez is a free agent and the Packers have no clear successors waiting in the wings on the roster.
Instead, it is feasible that the Packers could look to the NFL Draft for a complement to Martinez (if he returns) or a replacement if he departs, which seems more likely. This year’s linebacker class is a thin one at the top, but one name seems to stand out clearly above the others.
Kenneth Murray, linebacker, Oklahoma
Weight: 234 pounds
Play diagnostic ability is the first thing that pops off the tape when watching Murray play. Murray clearly does his homework and is able to sniff out what the offense is trying to do prior to the ball being snapped on a semi-regular basis. This, in combination with superb acceleration, allows him to find and exploit weaknesses in play design and blow them up before they have time to develop.
That being said, there were a few instances where Murray either misread the play or didn’t properly time his get-off and managed to get washed out of the play. Still, the frequency of explosive plays he was able to generate far outweighed the few times he got knocked out of the play. Even when he doesn’t get a jump on the play, Murray is able to quickly read blocking in front of him and more often than not attacks the proper gap. Once Murray is moving downhill, his size, acceleration, and rate of force explosiveness allow him to knife between or run over linemen.
Murray rarely had difficulty getting around or shedding blocks once he was moving. Even in instances where linemen got to the second level and got hands on Murray without forward momentum, Murray showed a solid ability to lock and shed blockers. Murray also showed very good lateral agility and sideline to sideline speed, which allowed him to contain stretch and sweep plays very well. Murray could be over-aggressive with his angles on these types of plays, however, and he occasionally came up short. In general, Murray took relatively good angles in pursuit, but again occasionally overestimated his speed.
In the few instances that Murray was asked to take man coverage, he was generally able to keep pace with tight ends and running backs, showing good lateral quickness and reaction time to move with their cuts and a solid understanding of the leverage necessary to make a play on the ball. In zone coverage, Murray showed good awareness of players entering his zone while tracking the quarterback’s eyes and he was generally in a position to make a play on the ball while offensive players were in his zone.
Murray has been particularly good at identifying and engaging running backs slipping out on patterns, though there were one or two instances where they got a step on Murray for a chunk of yardage. Murray is also highly adept at sniffing out screens and smoke plays and is able to attack the ball carrier well before their blocking is set up. Generally, I would rate Murray as very good in pass defense at a college level and probably average at the NFL level. I think that the modern matchup nightmare style of tight end, players such as George Kittle, will be able to get theirs against Murray, but I don’t think that he’ll create a giant black hole in the middle of the defense that we saw with Blake Martinez.
Murray is an outstanding pass rusher both at attacking inside gaps and rushing on the outside. Murray’s excellent play diagnostics and acceleration are again a boon, and Murray is good at turning his shoulders and hips moving between linemen to “get skinny” and get his feet and shoulders behind linemen before then can punch him and arrest his momentum.
Murray is also a superb speed rusher coming from the outside. Murray has good reaction time and excellent acceleration off the ball and has a well developed dip and rip to avoid and brush away an initial punch and burn tackles. There was one dip and rip against Texas Tech for a sack where you would have sworn that Murray was Cameron Wake. I would honestly contend that Murray is the best speed rush specialist I’ve seen on film since Derek Barnett.
Murray also isn’t a slouch using a bull rush as his base move, and has a fairly good push pull that he uses off of it. Murray could diversify his move set a bit, perhaps with the development of counter moves and a more robust move set (maybe a swipe or spin), but that would honestly just be a cherry on top. As a consequence of his skill as both an inside and outside rusher and his solid lateral agility, Murray is very good on stunts. Tackles have to respect him, and he’s often quick enough to get between interior linemen before they realize he’s stunting inside. Suffice to say, Murray’s pass rush ability provides additional utility in any defense and would give Mike Pettine more flexibility to disguise his pass rush since Murray is a legitimate threat anywhere he’s lined up.
Murray is a solid tackler, though his technique can get sloppy from time to time. While Murray gets his body into his tackles and wraps, he sometimes comes high and doesn’t get his shoulder into the midsection of the runner. Powerful running backs such as Derrick Henry may be able to exploit this. Murray does a good job of accelerating into his tackles both in confined spaces and in the open field, avoiding getting paralyzed by stutter steps. While it’s great that Murray has the instinct to attack and isn’t fooled by jukes, he may want to learn to temper this against runners with excellent muscle elasticity and learn to break down every once in a while.
Murray has excellent athleticism and great play diagnostics, which lead me to believe that he’ll come into the league as a good run defender with the potential to become elite. Murray also has sufficient skills shedding blocks that he can operate competently regardless of the quality of line play in front of him. Murray demonstrated solid, if not spectacular, coverage ability, and I believe he’ll come into the league as an average pass defender with the potential to become above average. As a cherry on top, Murray is an elite pass rusher by inside linebacker standards and would come into the league as such. Heck, he may have rated as a late first rounder as a pass rusher if he was a couple inches taller. In an objective draft, I would put Murray as a top 15 talent, perhaps top 10 if he returns exceptional results at the combine.
Now, there are a couple factors working in the Packers’ favor to potentially land this player with the 30th selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. First, this is a quarterback- and wide receiver-heavy class, which may push down players like Murray to later in the draft. Second, inside linebacker is not considered a premium position in the NFL, and despite his overwhelming talent, Murray may get picked much later than he should. I still don’t believe that in a rational universe Murray would last to 30, but the NFL draft can sometimes be very irrational, and perhaps even if Murray doesn’t make it to the 30th pick, he’ll get far enough down the board to be a legitimate trade up target for the Packers.