There will probably be a lot of money thrown around at off-ball linebackers in free agency next week, as NFL teams try to solidify the middle of their defenses. One of the teams who project as players in the linebacker market are the Green Bay Packers, as their incumbent starter, Blake Martinez, is set to be a free agent.
The Packers have traditionally chosen not to invest significant resources at the off-ball linebacker position under recent leadership regimes. From 2007 to the end of his tenure, former general manager Ted Thompson famously never drafted a linebacker before the start of round four. In two drafts, Brian Gutekunst has selected one: third-round pick Oren Burks, whom he traded up to pick.
Likewise, neither man has paid for external free agents at the position, though Thompson did give some second contracts (and once even a third for A.J. Hawk) to home-grown players. This year seems like the time that approach changes, and with an intriguing but raw class of linebackers in the 2020 NFL Draft, signing a top veteran may indeed be the right choice to open up the team’s options in April. But with question marks or dollar signs swirling around each of the top options, finding values on the market must be a primary focus.
One player who might be able to provide significant impact at a value is former Cleveland Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey. A 2014 third-round draft pick by the Browns, Kirksey earned himself a four-year, $38 million extension during the 2017 season, playing the first two years of that deal before the Browns released him this week.
Kirksey’s release appears to be due to two main factors: money and injuries. On his first two seasons under the new contract, Kirksey played in just nine games — seven in 2018 and two last fall. Both of those seasons were cut short by injuries, as he suffered a season-ending hamstring injury two years ago and tore a pectoral muscle in the second game of 2019. However, he had surgery on the latter injury and is expected to be fully recovered for 2020.
As a street free agent, Kirksey is immediately eligible to sign with a new team, and he is apparently making the rounds already, according to ESPN’s Dan Graziano:
Las Vegas is the first stop for Kirksey, who currently plans to take four or five visits. Since he was released, Kirksey can sign at any time - doesn't have to wait for 4 pm ET next Wednesday. https://t.co/PkY3w2mxFT— Dan Graziano (@DanGrazianoESPN) March 11, 2020
While there is not yet confirmation that the Packers are on his itinerary, it would make perfect sense for the Packers to bring him in for a visit. The team’s need is clear, with the Packers reportedly showing interest in every major player at the position on the unrestricted free agent market. In addition, Kirksey would provide a steady veteran presence in addition to some playmaking ability. He also would bring speed to the middle of the field, having reportedly run the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds at Iowa’s 2014 Pro Day.
Adept as a blitzer, Kirksey posted 11.5 sacks in his first four seasons, first as a part-time starter and then two years as a full starter. That alone should have him on the Packers’ radar, particularly given defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s heavy use of Martinez as an A-gap blitzer. He also showed some solid pass coverage ability, particularly in 2018 when he intercepted two passes and broke up three more.
In addition, a major connection between Kirksey and the Packers is Pettine himself. Kirksey’s first two years in the NFL came with Pettine as the Browns’ head coach. Clearly, Pettine would have been involved in Kirksey’s selection in the draft, not to mention coaching him along with the rest of the Browns’ defense in 2014 and 2015. During those two seasons, Kirksey’s playing time varied between 50-60% of defensive snaps, as he started 13 games and played all 32. In that time he totaled 5.5 sacks, a pair of forced fumbles, and a total of 144 tackles.
For an intangible connection, Kirksey was raised in the Midwest. He went to high school at Hazelwood East, a few minutes north of St. Louis, then played his college football four hours north in Iowa City for Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes. As a result, making his residence in Green Bay could be appealing as it would keep him relatively close to home.
The question around Kirksey is price. Given his injury history, however, a relatively low-risk, two-year deal heavy on incentives and per-game active roster bonuses would make sense. But if he stays healthy, he could be every bit the equal of players closer to the top of the market for a fraction of the price.
For a team like the Packers, who have only a modest amount of salary cap space this season, gambling on a lower-priced veteran and finding a rookie on day two of the NFL Draft could be the ideal approach to addressing the position in 2020.