Camp could be Bradford's last shot with Packers
GREEN BAY - The pecking order at inside linebacker revealed itself in the media auditorium at Lambeau Field, where defensive coordinator Dom Capers leaned against the front wall, encircled by reporters, for his last interview of the offseason program June 14.
For the better part of a month, fans and media had seen the blossoming rapport between Jake Ryan and rookie Blake Martinez during open practices at Ray Nitschke Field. They worked together constantly with the first-team defense, their pairing enabled by the continuing recovery of Sam Barrington, and through May and June they laid a foundation with long-term implications for the Green Bay Packers.
It came as no surprise, then, that Capers named only three players when asked for his thoughts on the inside linebacker position overall. He mentioned Ryan, who needs to take a step in his second season. He mentioned Barrington, whose 2015 season was erased by a foot injury in the opener. And he mentioned Martinez, the fourth-round pick from Stanford whose spongelike demeanor impressed coaches and teammates alike.
"It will be interesting to follow that through training camp," Capers said. "Training camp is going to be important at that position."
Yet the intrigue runs deeper than the three front-runners, toward a player whose career is easy to forget so far. For two years Carl Bradford has toiled in anonymity — one season on the practice squad, one more on the inactive list — and in many ways this training camp presents his best chance. The former edge rusher was converted to inside linebacker a year ago, and the position will never be more open than it is right now. Two starting spots, zero incumbents.
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"It makes you grind harder, makes you want it that much more when you know everything is not set in stone," Bradford said during minicamp in mid-June. "It gives you that chance of hope like, 'Oh, I can go start. He can go start.' It's up in the air, so it makes you compete even more."
A fourth-round pick in 2014, Bradford arrived in Green Bay with success as a pass rusher (21.5 sacks in 40 games) at Arizona State and projections from scouts as an outside linebacker for a 3-4 defense. He was described by then-director of college scouting Brian Gutekunst as having "explosive power" and "a variety of moves." General manager Ted Thompson said Bradford can "play with power and set the edge."
But everything crumbled when Bradford took the field, where in 53 snaps in exhibition games his production was virtually nonexistent. He was handicapped by the lack of height (6-foot-1) and lack of length (30½-inch arms) that sunk him to the 121st pick in the draft. He made the 53-man roster but was a healthy scratch for every game.
"In college I was flying around," Bradford told the Journal Sentinel in training camp last season. "That's the style I liked playing at. Just going attacking. I know that's what they want to see from me. I know I haven't been doing that."
At the time, Bradford was in the early stages of the move to inside linebacker. The change triggered mental hurdles that overwhelmed him for months. Bradford learned coverages, implemented new footwork and trained his eyes to see the game from a different part of the field. But his performances were uneven during training camp last season, and his spot on the roster was gone.
Released during the final wave of cuts, Bradford quickly re-signed to the practice squad and remained with the Packers throughout the 2015 season. But the demotion stung, and Bradford said he dipped into a funk. It was alleviated through prayer and constant encouragement from family and friends.
"I'm not going to lie: It was tough, man," Bradford said during minicamp. "I felt disappointed. I felt like I let my family down. It all just hit me, man. It's crazy when you have it so good and it can be gone the next day. You take it for granted, man. It's a bad feeling. That's why I'm blessed to be back here again and them wanting me back in here to try this again."
In January, the Packers re-signed Bradford to a futures contract that keeps him in Green Bay through training camp. The move served as yet another confirmation of Thompson's belief in draft picks, and Bradford knows it might be more accurately described as his last chance.
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But while he enters camp more comfortable than at any point in his career — first he was a nervous rookie, then he began the change to a new position — everything about Bradford remains a mystery. He played infrequently during the exhibition games last season and, as a member of the practice squad, had responsibilities outside of the inside linebacker position. He's entering year three, and no one knows who or what he is.
Consider this from Capers: "Obviously now he's had a year at the position, so we would expect him to be able to take that step. We probably won't really know until we get into the preseason games."
Or this from Scott McCurley, the assistant inside linebackers coach: "It will sort its way out this fall, I think, and we'll really get a feel for where he's at compared to the rest of the guys in the group. Like we've seen in the past in certain glimpses, he has some ability. We've just got to get it out of him, and he's got to get it out of himself."
Or this from Bradford himself: "I have a couple preseason games from last year, but it's hard to identify myself and say, 'This is what I am as an inside guy.' I'm still trying to figure that out, in a sense, and hopefully this season I will definitely know."
Uncertainties aside, Bradford's off-season program ended on a high note he hopes will serve as a lasting impression between now and training camp.
Paired with Martinez for an 11-on-11 drill, Bradford switched onto tight end Kennard Backman in coverage. He focused his attention on Backman's low hip, just as Bradford said the coaches instructed, and snagged a pass from quarterback Joe Callahan for an athletic interception.
It was a single play in a single practice that, come August, will almost certainly be forgotten. But for a moment, Bradford was giddy. For a moment, these two long years felt worthwhile.
"I'm still very fortunate," Bradford said. "I'm still the 1%. I'm still having my head high and being thankful and grateful that I'm here. I could be working at McDonald's or something, you never know. I'm truly blessed.
"We all fall victim to feeling sorry for ourselves a lot. I had that time, and it passes real quick. You can't let it take you down."