GREEN BAY - In the 27 months since the Green Bay Packers drafted him with a fourth-round pick, former Arizona State standout Carl Bradford has been many things: an outside linebacker asked to rush the passer; a member of the 53-man roster; a healthy scratch his entire rookie year; a convert to inside linebacker; a practice squad project; a free agent; a signee of a futures contract to stick with the Packers one more year.
A turbulent introduction to the National Football League stabilized slightly on Jan. 18, when Bradford inked a one-year, $531,000 deal that exemplified the general manager’s unwavering belief in draft picks and the mutual understanding that, unless something changed, this could be Bradford’s last ride.
And yet, in his third chance … playing his second position … near the bottom of the inside linebacker depth chart … something clicked for Bradford in a way he had never experienced in Green Bay. Gone was the mental tempest that halted his instincts last season. Gone were the scheme adjustments that neutralized his athletic gifts.
So the clear-headed Bradford dished out hits in an exhibition game against the Cleveland Browns: three tackles and one pass defended in 24 snaps. Then he did it again to the Oakland Raiders: four tackles in just 15 snaps. For the first time since college, since his last meaningful game on Dec. 30, 2014, Bradford’s stock is trending up. He finally feels like an inside linebacker. And he feels capable of making the team.
“It felt good,” Bradford said. “I felt myself for once. I really haven’t been feeling that these past couple years.
“From this point last year I really didn’t understand the defense, really didn’t understand certain things. I wasn’t comfortable for myself. Now it’s time to go get it, and I feel way better. I feel confident in my game more and just ready to attack.”
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Despite the significant disappointment of the last calendar year, Bradford said he recognized the potential for a clean slate in 2016 after coach Mike McCarthy shifted Clay Matthews to outside linebacker. With Matthews departed, with Sam Barrington coming back from torn ankle ligaments and with Jake Ryan largely inexperienced, the inside linebacker positions were there to be taken.
Since the spring, Bradford had taken reps in the second pairing of inside linebackers while Ryan and rookie Blake Martinez worked with the starters. (Barrington did not participate in the offseason program and began training camp on the PUP list.) Bradford paired most often with Joe Thomas, another roster hopeful who filled the dime linebacker role last season.
“Joe Thomas and Carl, I think it jumps out to everybody,” McCarthy said. “I mean, you’re talking about two young players that have really taken a huge step in their development. I’m very, very pleased with what Joe has done and Carl. Playing fast, playing reckless and that’s what you look for.”
The camp pairings held true during the first two exhibition games. The only difference was that Barrington, now healed, took the place of Ryan, who is now out with a hamstring injury. Bradford and Thomas rotated in once the starters had been relieved.
The performance against the Browns was Bradford’s finest as a professional. He exuded physicality with jarring hits against running back Terrell Watson and wide receiver Rannell Hall, the latter forcing a dropped pass. He flashed an ability to support the run when he made a nice cut — avoiding the oncoming center — and sliced into the hole for a solid tackle of tailback Raheem Mostert. The play went for no gain.
And Bradford was steady against the Raiders, too. He stuck a tackle on running back DeAndre Washington in space off the right side of the formation. He also leveled guard Denver Kirkland en route to a half tackle on a running play that lost a yard.
“The one thing I can say about Carl, no matter the ups and downs he’s going through since we drafted him, this guy comes to practice every single day with a great attitude, and all he does is just give great effort,” associate head coach/linebackers Winston Moss said. “And so the guy is just working at it day in and day out, day in and day out, and guess what? Finally, the light clicked on the other day, and I was so happy.”
Should the recent ascension of Bradford and Thomas continue, what was once a relatively bare cupboard for the Packers might wind up overstocked at the conclusion of camp. Ryan and Martinez, the two fourth-round picks, are virtual locks to make the 53-man roster. The players behind them — Barrington, Bradford, Thomas, Beniquez Brown and Derrick Matthews — are fighting for spots. The Packers are likely to keep anywhere from three to five inside linebackers.
But Bradford is not without his warts. His strides thus far belie two years of inconsistency that, according to multiple coaches, make Bradford difficult to evaluate. He played fast against the Browns and Raiders but must play faster on a snap-to-snap basis. He looked instinctive at times and reactionary at others. His job is certain to include special teams, but McCarthy said that’s an area where Bradford needs to improve.
“This past game, he stepped up and he made those plays across the board and he did a good job when he was in there,” assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley said after the win over the Browns. “But like I’ve told him, he’s got to take that day-to-day now. He’s got to show up every day with that mindset and compete the way he did this past week.”
Carl Bradford has been many things during his 27-month stint in Green Bay. Is successful inside linebacker next?