GREEN BAY - On Tuesday evening, Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said he believes Kyler Fackrell has the requisite strength to succeed as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Fackrell, a third-round pick in 2016, was tossed around in training camp last year and has started slowly again this season. Questions about his accountability were percolating.
On Wednesday afternoon, some 19 hours later, Fackrell squared off with running back William Stanback in a one-on-one hitting drill predicated on proper tackling and dishing out the heaviest blow. Stanback, an undrafted free agent from Virginia Union, put his right shoulder through Fackrell’s chest and flattened him.
Such moments are not uncommon in training camp, and even defensive end Mike Daniels has been shoved to the ground on multiple occasions by left guard Lane Taylor in their one-on-one tangles. The unfortunate part for Fackrell is that his latest display of frailty took place the day after Capers’ public backing — “I think he’s strong enough,” Capers said — and added to an unremarkable training camp that has done little to ease growing skepticism of his abilities.
“Fackrell has always been a cerebral player,” associate head coach/linebackers Winston Moss said earlier in camp. “He’s more of an assignment-type player, and so he focuses on that a little bit more. We’d like him to be more, I guess, break out of that a little bit. Our position is about making plays. Talking about that, we’d like him to play with some more aggression, play with some more risk-taking and look to be more disruptive.
“I try to create a scenario in which you can enhance his ability to bring out his aggression, to say the least. I’m trying to find a story for you, I’m trying to find something for you, kinda drawing a blank here. But it will come.”
The Packers drafted Fackrell because, like many teams, they were intrigued by his physical attributes and overall athleticism. At 6-5, Fackrell is the tallest outside linebacker on the roster by two full inches. He also is lanky (33-inch arms), explosive (34½-inch vertical leap) and ran the 40-yard dash faster than Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Vince Biegel, Jayrone Elliott and Reggie Gilbert.
Strength was Fackrell's biggest drawback after he posted only 16 reps on the bench press. Pre-draft opinions ranged from one NFC scout who said, “We love him. He's on the rise,” to another NFC scout who said, quite bluntly, “He stinks.”
In Green Bay, left tackle David Bakhtiari has compared Fackrell to former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen. It’s unclear whether Bakhtiari knew both players performed poorly on the bench press at the NFL scouting combine, where Fackrell’s 16 reps were three more than Allen managed. (For reference, wide receiver Jeff Janis posted 20 reps in 2014.)
“One of the guys that I think Bakhtiari said that he kind of saw me as was a Jared Allen-type,” Fackrell said. “Obviously he was a true defensive end, a little bit heavier. But he was kind of lengthy and still pretty athletic.”
While flattering, the comparison obfuscates the unbalanced tenor of Fackrell’s time in Green Bay. As a rookie, Fackrell battled to keep his head above water as bigger and more physical players brushed him aside during camp. A distinct lack of power translated to one-move predictability, and opposing linemen shoved him wide on every speed rush he tried.
But Fackrell found his way during the regular season and finished with 6½ pressures (including two sacks) in just 176 total snaps. He led the Packers with eight special teams tackles despite missing three games with a hamstring injury. There was something about his style that caused problems for opposing linemen, even if it never troubled his own.
“I think I have a good mixture of speed and length, you know?” Fackrell said earlier this week. “And I’m still working on trying to figure out how best to use those things and still be able to mix in some power just to keep them honest. But I do think I’m pretty big, pretty long and a pretty fast-twitch guy for how big I am.”
Nonetheless, Fackrell has found it difficult to unlock his potential and harmonize the components of an enviable skill set. He is 10 pounds heavier than he was last summer, but the linemen don't seem to notice.
It took one year and 12 practices for Fackrell to finally win a rep in the one-on-one pass-rush drill against various offensive tackles. He defeated Robert Leff earlier this week after beginning his career 0-24 dating to last training camp. Leff is an undrafted free agent from Auburn who wasn’t part of the original 90-man roster.
“I really think it’s just kind of an opportunity to try out different things and to go against these tackles,” Fackrell said of the drill. “Obviously it’s not really realistic for the tackles either because they have other guys setting inside of them, whereas in that drill it’s truly one-on-one. With no quarterback there’s no real spot that we’re trying to get to as a defensive player, either. So it’s really just a place to experiment.”
But the first exhibition game told a similar story. Fackrell played 12 snaps from scrimmage and 11 snaps on special teams against the Philadelphia Eagles last week. The official box score listed him with zero tackles of any kind. Fackrell was undeterred.
“I think the first game went well,” Fackrell said. “Looking forward to just kind of still getting back into it, get some more live action this Saturday.”
In fairness, the consternation surrounding Fackrell’s development is largely a byproduct of free agency. Had outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Datone Jones re-signed with the Packers — or perhaps even if rookie Vince Biegel was healthy — there would be far less scrutiny surrounding an unpolished player entering just his second season in the league.
It wasn’t until general manager Ted Thompson let Peppers and Jones walk that the microscope on Fackrell zoomed to critical levels. All of a sudden Fackrell, Elliott and Biegel were being counted on to produce.
And Fackrell isn't there just yet.
“I wouldn’t say pressure,” Fackrell said. “I don’t think any of us look at it like that. It’s really just a great opportunity, and everybody wants to play as much as possible anyways. I don’t think it’s looked on by any of us as a bad thing or like we’re scared of it. It’s just a great opportunity for us.”