Sam Barrington was becoming a leader in the middle of the Green Bay Packers' defense, a significant accomplishment for a player with his pedigree.
Two years ago, Barrington was a seventh-round pick. The last player taken in the Packers' 2013 draft class was only 22 slots from going undrafted entirely. There were few expectations for this 6-foot-1, 246-pound linebacker from South Florida, especially after running a 4.83-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine.
None of that seemed to matter on the field. Barrington quickly rose up the depth chart, starting midway through last season. So when the Packers placed Barrington on injured reserve Tuesday, ending his season after a foot injury Sunday in the team's opener at the Chicago Bears, it left a significant void to fill.
"Sam Barrington, obviously, is one of our starters," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday morning. "That's the obvious answer to the question, but Sam was taking on a leadership role defensively. He was the signal caller, so that's obviously a big responsibility that you have on defense. So yeah, it's definitely a blow to your defense, but unfortunately in the NFL this is how it goes sometimes."
On the field, perhaps the biggest adjustment will be having a new player handle presnap communication. That responsibility was given to Nate Palmer after Barrington exited against the Bears, McCarthy said. McCarthy did not say who will handle communication duties Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, and for the rest of the season. Palmer, linebacker Clay Matthews and strong safety Morgan Burnett figure to be among the leading candidates.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Palmer did a "commendable" job filling in for Barrington against the Bears. He also tied for the team lead with seven tackles. Still, it's a major transition to become a full-time, starting inside linebacker.
Palmer missed the entire 2014 season after being placed on injured reserve with a torn MCL in the Packers' preseason finale. Before that, the former college defensive end was just starting to transition from outside linebacker to inside.
"Nate Palmer gives us the ability to play both inside and outside," McCarthy said. "He had some production in the first game. He'll be a week better, just having the reps and being able to rep the whole plan. That always helps. We're going to do some things, and do some different things, and we'll see how it works out Sunday."
Barrington's injury is a potential game-changer for the Packers' defense. While Matthews' switch to inside linebacker transformed the unit last season, Barrington's emergence impacted the team's offseason approach. His presence made it easier for the Packers to bid farewell to former starters A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones.
So confident were the Packers in their pairing of Matthews and Barrington, general manager Ted Thompson signed no inside linebackers this offseason. Thompson used only one of his eight draft picks on a collegiate linebacker, and that selection didn't come until the fourth round.
Of course, nobody is feeling sorry for the Packers. As McCarthy said, injuries are an inherent part of the NFL.
Across the league, the carnage from Week 1 alone is a long list. Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant will miss multiple weeks with a broken bone in his foot. Baltimore Ravens defensive leader Terrell Suggs will miss the entire season with a torn Achilles. Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly suffered a concussion, Oakland Raiders safety Charles Woodson has a dislocated shoulder, Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton could miss a game with a bruised knee.
The injury report goes on and on.
The Packers were already hit with a significant injury during the preseason when star receiver Jordy Nelson tore his ACL in Pittsburgh. Now, they must move on with another starter out until 2016.
"As far as how we move forward defensively," McCarthy said, "obviously different schemes, different players will be involved."
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