Remember the wait last spring? For two days and three rounds, the Green Bay Packers passed over their greatest need in the NFL draft. When the sun rose on Day 3, there was no new inside linebacker.
At the time, the wait seemed unnecessarily long. Inside linebackers vanished from draft boards before general manager Ted Thompson finally settled on his guy. With the 129th overall pick in the fourth round, the Packers drafted Michigan’s Jake Ryan.
Finally, it seemed, the Packers had plugged the hole inside their defense. Ryan’s ascension to a starting role appeared to be imminent after veteran Sam Barrington’s season ended with a foot injury in the Packers' opener.
Instead, there was another wait.
It wasn’t until Week 9 that Ryan played meaningful snaps. The rookie led the Packers with 10 tackles in a 37-29 loss at Carolina. In the fourth quarter, he pulled down Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart for a 7-yard loss after two or three Packers defenders missed in the backfield. Here was a confidence spark, a young player realizing he could compete amongst professionals.
“It showed me that I could do something,” Ryan said after the Packers' season ended last month, “and I think that definitely helped me out.”
Ryan looked like a natural in the middle. Finally, it seemed, the Packers had a new inside linebacker. But Ryan still wasn’t ready. Coach Mike McCarthy said his rookie played “just OK” in Carolina. Some production, he said, but an awful lot of mistakes.
So, again, there was another wait.
Ryan's progress slowed after he led the Packers in tackles at Carolina, and he played only one snap over the next four games. His first start wouldn’t come until Week 13, almost a month later. Behind a struggling Nate Palmer, Ryan was the defense’s forgotten soul until December.
All those delays seemed to pay off. Once Ryan established himself as a starter, he never looked back. In his first start, Ryan again led the Packers with 10 tackles at Detroit. He had a critical fumble recovery deep in Lions territory, which set up a third-quarter touchdown in a game the Packers would go on to win 27-23 on a Hail Mary pass.
Down the stretch, Ryan was a mainstay on defense. He played 289 of 451 snaps (64 percent) after Dec. 1, counting playoffs. He started each of the Packers' final seven games, the final two coming on the road in the playoffs.
“I think I did lay a good foundation,” Ryan said, “and I just need to build off it.”
Ryan finished with 50 tackles in 2015, the most for any Packers rookie linebacker since Clay Matthews had 51 in 2009. Since Thompson became general manager in 2005, Ryan, Matthews and A.J. Hawk are the only rookie linebackers to have recorded 50 or more tackles for the Packers.
Of course, Matthews and Hawk were first-round picks. Ryan had to wait. It’s no coincidence he joined a rare group. In a small sample size, Ryan flashed enough promise to suggest he could become the Packers' best linebacker since Matthews.
That’s not to compare Ryan to the six-time Pro Bowler. He doesn’t have Matthews’ pass-rush athleticism, nor his versatility. Still, there was a good foundation.
Ryan was a steady presence against the run, something the Packers dearly need with their recent history of rush defense. He was credited with a defensive stop on 12.1 percent of his run defense snaps, the second-highest among all rookie inside linebackers. Run-stop percentage is a metric Pro Football Focus tracks to gauge a player’s range.
Ryan missed a tackle as a run defender once every 18.5 attempts, a run-tackle efficiency that ranked third among rookie inside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus.
““I think the place I improved the most,” Ryan said, “was just knowing the defenses, breaking down the defense, knowing where to go, knowing where to fit and all that kind of stuff.”
McCarthy often talks about the importance of players making a significant jump in their second seasons. That will be Ryan’s focus entering the offseason program.
Ryan knows where he needs to improve. He highlighted his man-to-man coverage. Opposing quarterbacks had a 135.2 passer rating when targeting him in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. Next season, that won’t be good enough.
Improving in pass coverage, Ryan said, is a “huge part of the game.” It could go a long way toward determining whether Matthews can return to outside linebacker this fall, as McCarthy prefers. Ryan doesn’t plan to wait for next season before improving against the pass.
He wants to get started this spring.
“Going into the offseason,” Ryan said, “is going to be just keep on studying, learning more and watching film.”