GREEN BAY - Even though Ahmad Brooks was leaving a franchise that cycled through six head coaches in eight years, that hadn’t finished above .500 since 2013 and that won a total of seven games in the last two seasons, the veteran pass rusher was nervous about joining the Green Bay Packers, a perennial Super Bowl contender.
Brooks, a 33-year-old outside linebacker with two Pro Bowl appearances, was released by the San Francisco 49ers on Aug. 25 after nine years in the Bay Area. He was the second-longest tenured player on the roster, and the reality of relocation triggered doubt.
“I was pessimistic at first because I was afraid of change, you know what I’m saying?” Brooks said after Monday’s practice. “I’m so comfortable being where I’m at, having a house and my family and stuff like that. Everything felt established, man. It was just the uncertainty, you know? I didn’t know what to expect. I was kind of scared, I was kind of afraid. But now that I’m here and got around the fellas, started loosening up, started easing up and my personality can start coming out now.”
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A frantic weekend for the Packers gave way to a calm sense of focus at Lambeau Field as coaches and players got to work for the first day of the regular season. General manager Ted Thompson had spent the previous 48 hours overhauling his group of outside linebackers — from the official signing of Brooks, to the trade of Jayrone Elliott, to the waiver claim for Chris Odom, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons — but both of his new pass rushers were in place as the Packers hit the practice field Monday afternoon.
For Brooks and Odom it marked the beginning of a wicked crash course to get them ready for the season opener against the Seattle Seahawks.
“Just full-time preparation,” coach Mike McCarthy said before Monday’s practice. “That’s pretty much what’s gone on since both guys have arrived. (Associate head coach/linebackers) Winston Moss is spending a lot of individual time with those guys. They’ll practice today, so we’ll just keep working at it. We’ve got work to do.”
Brooks flew to Green Bay early last week and spent Tuesday visiting with the coaching staff and members of the front office. The two sides reached a verbal agreement on a contract the next day, though it wasn’t signed until Sunday afternoon: one year, $3.5 million and the potential to earn as much as $5 million with incentives. Brooks spent the weekend in Green Bay getting acclimated to the team, the facilities and the city itself.
Nonetheless, there will certainly be a learning curve for Brooks in Green Bay, even at 33 years old and with 10 years of experience in the league. He and Odom spent the early portion of Monday’s practice standing beside Moss, their position coach, during the defensive walk-through period. They also took turns chatting with the other outside linebackers, from Clay Matthews and Nick Perry to rookie fourth-round pick Vince Biegel, who will face a similar uphill battle later this season after coming off the PUP list.
“It’s a good fit for me because No. 1 they run a 3-4,” Brooks said. “I’m comfortable playing in a 3-4 scheme. I played it all throughout college, I played it all throughout my years in San Francisco. They do things a little bit different here. The terminology is different, of course, so it’s going to take me a while to pick it up. But I think I’ll do good.
“I mean, it’s not that hard to rush the passer, you know? All you got to do is line up and go. I think in the first week hopefully they’ll throw me out there and rush the passer.”
Aside from having two new faces, the most obvious change to the outside linebacker unit is an increase in size, evident as Brooks conducted his interview in a tank top that highlighted his brawny chest. At 6-3 and 259 pounds, Brooks serves as a median between Matthews (6-3, 255) and Nick Perry (6-3, 265), whose strength to set the edge is far greater than that of Kyler Fackrell and the departed Elliott. Consider it a swap of finesse for brute strength.
“(San Francisco) moved him all over the place, particularly when (defensive coordinator) Vic Fangio was there,” McCarthy said. “They played him off the ball in the goal line. He’s played more the elephant assignment-wise in our scheme. Has played the outside linebacker position. So I think he’s a heck of a player. He’s someone that I’ve always had a lot of respect for.”
“He’s very sudden,” said tight end Lance Kendricks, who played against Brooks every year as a member of the Los Angeles Rams. “He kind of surprises you with his strike and his ability to get to the ball. I think he’s kind of like a passive-aggressive player. He knows when to wait for it and then attacks. I think he’s a really underrated player. I think he’s really going to help the defense.”
In terms of a potential role, Brooks recognized the opportunity for significant playing time in Green Bay. He is third on the depth chart behind Matthews and Perry, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers found enough snaps for four key contributors last season: Matthews, Perry, Julius Peppers and Datone Jones.
Brooks said he was familiar with the niche carved out by Peppers in the latter stages of his career, joining the Packers at age 34 and finding ways to steadily produce. Peppers averaged a little more than 8 sacks per year in three seasons in Green Bay, and Brooks believes he can match that level of production. Brooks has averaged just under 6 ½ sacks per year over the last eight years.
“Julius Peppers is a beast,” Brooks said. “He was like the No. 1 overall pick when he got drafted out of college. His intangibles are not like any other. But from what I saw the past two or three years when he came here, he set the edge pretty good, he ran to the ball, he was a force to be reckoned with and he averaged about 7 or 8 sacks a year. And I believe I can do the same thing.”
The Packers are hoping for additional assistance from Odom, who will wear jersey No. 98. Though he is listed at 6-4 and 262 pounds, Odom looked far thicker in his debut practice, especially through the lower body.
Odom’s frame lends itself to the hybrid elephant position played by Peppers and Jones in recent years, the kind of player with enough speed to win standing up and the durability to move inside as a sub-package rusher. Ironically, it’s the latter that would come more naturally for Odom after an entire offseason as a 4-3 defensive end for the Falcons.
Consider it another chapter in his crash course.
“I trained a little bit before my pro day at outside linebacker because I was (already) so used to my hand in the dirt,” Odom said, “so I trained standing up to make me more of a universal type of defensive player. It’s not completely new but it’s going to take some more repetition for me to get used to it for it to be second nature and natural for me.
“All of that just comes from time and repetition. I should be fine.”