Big change: Packers getting smaller inside

Ryan Wood
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Third in a series looking at the Packers’ key issues entering organized team activities Monday.

Josh Jones does a drill during Packers rookie orientation Friday, May 5, 2017 .

GREEN BAY – The inside linebacker position likely will get a major remodel in Green Bay this offseason, one that has been a long time coming.

The evolution will be done out of necessity to keep pace in a passing league. Rare is the linebacker who’s both big and fast. For years, teams had to choose between the two traits.

Undersized inside linebackers equate to more speed in the middle of the field, beneficial in pass coverage. Bigger inside linebackers beef up the run defense.

Under general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers consistently have leaned toward the latter. When they opened last season with Jake Ryan (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) and Blake Martinez (6-2, 237) at inside linebacker, they had one of the NFL’s bigger starting duos.

Eighteen of the NFL's 32 teams (56.25 percent) last season had a starting linebacker whose listed weight was less than 235 pounds. Seven teams (21.9 percent) had a starting linebacker weighing less than 225 pounds. The Packers opened 2016 in the league’s minority wanting to go bigger at inside linebacker. It’s no coincidence the underneath, middle of the field traditionally has been a soft spot in their pass coverage.

Then consider Thompson’s assessment of last season’s roster when asked whether his defense got better during the draft.

“We do feel like we got better,” Thompson said, “and we have a chance to grow and kind of spread our wings a little bit. I think sometimes you get a little stale in the roster, and that would be my fault if it happened.”

Thompson didn’t identify which areas of the Packers' roster got “stale” in the past. To be fair, he didn’t definitively say any areas were stale.

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But minutes after Thompson exited the podium, coach Mike McCarthy laid out this vision for the defense.

“This is a sub-defense league,” McCarthy said. “This is a sub league. Our numbers have been north of 80 percent. We’re playing 16, 17 percent base defense the last five, six, seven years. So we need to play not only more with our secondary players, but we need guys to play more than one position.”

Around the league, more and more secondary players are playing multiple positions. Usually, it’s safeties dropping into the box to be linebackers in sub-package defense.

Before the draft, strong safety Morgan Burnett was a prime candidate to line up more often as a sub linebacker. Clay Matthews, one of those rare linebackers both big and fast, is an edge rusher but is expected to resume lining up off the line of scrimmage.

It’s possible second-round rookie Josh Jones alleviates the need for Burnett and Matthews to play out of their natural position in passing situations. Jones is a safety, but he took individual reps with inside linebackers coach Scott McCurley during rookie orientation this month. That’s no coincidence. The Packers view Jones as a sub-package linebacker, a role he played at North Carolina State when he would rotate into the box on the weak side in the Wolfpack’s nickel defense.

Jones, at 6 foot and 220 pounds, fits the sleeker, modern model of inside linebacker. He ran a 4.40-second 40 at the NFL scouting combine, providing more speed in the middle of the field. For the Packers, it’s like trading in a Blackberry for the new iPhone.

This change wasn’t overnight. Burnett played some nickel linebacker last season. Joe Thomas (6-1, 227) played the most snaps among inside linebackers because of injuries, though his original role was dime linebacker with Ryan and Martinez in nickel.

Jones represents the next step. He’s not unlike other hybrid safeties-inside linebackers around the league. Think Deion Jones (6-1, 221, 4.45) of the Atlanta Falcons and Deone Bucannon (6-1, 220, 4.49) of the Arizona Cardinals.

Now, there are a lot of moving parts in the middle of the Packers’ defense. It’s far too early to know how it all plays out, which is why reps will be interesting during next week’s organized team activities. The best guess is Ryan and Martinez still will be on the field in running situations, with one of them rotating to the sideline on passing downs.

A new makeup at inside linebacker would reflect what the rest of the league is already doing.

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