Every inside linebacker on the Green Bay Packers’ roster understands what’s at stake this summer.
The competition behind Clay Matthews and Sam Barrington goes well beyond just securing employment. There is a legitimate role in Dom Capers’ defense up for grabs when Matthews is rushing from his natural position outside and a playmaker is needed to fill in.
How flexible the Packers can be with the five-time Pro Bowler will come down to how comfortable they are replacing him inside. With Matthews currently sidelined with knee soreness, it’s given the Packers an extended look at Nate Palmer, rookie Jake Ryan and Joe Thomas with the starting defense.
Early on, the plays have been too few in number for their liking. Coach Mike McCarthy wants to see more.
“It’s a big opportunity for the inside linebackers and they need to start making more plays, frankly,” McCarthy said after practice. “We’re in the installation phase right now. There’s too much thinking going on, and that’s understandable — particularly today’s a very challenging installation for our defense, particularly the inside linebackers just their volume of responsibility and communication.
“You’ll probably see a little more of that hopefully as the week comes to a conclusion. They need to settle in and start playing.”
The Packers knew what they were in for this offseason. In lieu of a veteran acquisition in free agency, general manager Ted Thompson opted to rebuild the position with a young nucleus after cutting veterans A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones in February.
The restructuring began with Palmer and Carl Bradford completing their conversion from outside linebackers. Palmer, a sixth-round draft pick in 2013, seems to be ahead of Bradford despite spending last season on injured reserve with a torn MCL.
The 6-foot-2, 248-pounder has received the most first-team snaps next to Sam Barrington so far. However, he injured his left hand in practice Saturday while squaring up against running back Rajion Neal in an early contact period.
It’s required Palmer to practice with a club this week and walk around the locker room with a splint on his hand. He doesn’t know when he’ll be rid of it, but feels he’ll be able to play through. Still, Palmer admits the injury doesn’t help his ability to disengage from blockers.
The important thing is showing coaches and the front office what he can do after the year layoff.
“It’s very important to capitalize on the chances,” said Palmer, who had 17 tackles in eight games as a rookie in 2013. “You want to make the most out of every situation that you’re in because you don’t know when the next opportunity will come. So when you’re out there, it might only be one, two, three snaps. You want to make the best out of those.
“You don’t want to mess up. You want to try to make an impactful play if you can because when Clay comes back those reps get cut short. It’s one of those type things.”
The Packers made their most significant offseason move at the position in drafting Michigan’s Jake Ryan in the fourth round. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound rookie looks the part and has the best pedigree of all the inside prospects, but faces a steep learning curve in transitioning to Capers’ defense.
It’s not the first time he’s been stressed to pick up a scheme. His college position coach, Greg Mattison, doubled as the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator and brought an NFL-sized playbook with him to Ann Arbor from his previous stop with the Baltimore Ravens.
Right now, Ryan is trying to piece it all together. He earned first reps next to Barrington in a pair of team periods late in practice Tuesday and is concentrating on reacting rather than thinking when the play starts to develop.
“There’s going to be mistakes made because I’m a rookie,” Ryan said. “There’s going to be stuff that I need to improve on. That’s just a matter of getting in your playbook, getting into film. I asked some older guys stuff that you need to do and that’s what I’m doing right now.”
Thomas has taken more snaps with the top two units than Bradford, a fourth-round draft pick in 2013 who was shifted inside after failing to make much of an impact early in last year’s camp.
Thomas (6-1, 227) is undersized for the position, but brings the tenacity you want in a linebacker. He was starting to make a case for a job last summer before injuring his knee in the preseason opener against Tennessee.
Green Bay reached an injury settlement at the end of camp, but signed him to the practice squad midseason. The Packers liked undrafted rookie Tavarus Dantzler enough to give him a $5,000 signing bonus out of Bethune-Cookman, but he’s yet to distinguish himself.
So why is McCarthy so insistent on seeing the young inside linebackers flash? A year ago, it was one of the defense’s biggest issues during a turbulent first half. It wasn’t until Matthews moved inside midseason that things finally turned around.
Barrington’s maturation was pivotal late. A seventh-round draft pick in 2013, Barrington played only one defensive snap as a rookie before being placed on injured reserve with a torn hamstring. The impact he provided last season is as good of evidence as any that you never know where you’ll find a playmaker.
Barrington was playing all three downs by the end of the season and likely will be the lone inside linebacker in the dime this season with Matthews bumping outside. He’s already grown comfortable with being a leader and mentor in an incredibly young room.
“Sam has been at the position … so he kind of knows the ins and outs,” Palmer said. “At the end of the day, we’re all still learning the position and fairly new to the position. It’s kind of like we all help each other in that aspect. I know when I’m in there with Sam, if I see something and he doesn’t see it, I’ll be like, ‘Yo, Sam.’ … We kind of play off each other.”
Matthews downplayed the injury in a brief interview with media Monday, but neither he nor McCarthy has offered a timetable for his return. His fellow linebackers are operating under the assumption it won’t be a lengthy absence.
Still, his hamstring history means the Packers need to have options. Currently, they’re significantly deeper outside with Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, Mike Neal, Jayrone Elliott and Andy Mulumba.
Last season showed the importance of competent play at inside linebacker. As McCarthy mandated Tuesday, the team is looking for someone to step up. The only question now is who will it be?
“You have to go in there and prove yourself every single time and do what you do,” Ryan said. “They’re just reps right now and whoever comes out on top, comes out on top.”
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