Packers overflowing with young candidates to step in for injured Jake Ryan
GREEN BAY – The sails aren’t even up on the Green Bay Packers' defense, so predicting the exact direction it will travel under new coordinator Mike Pettine remains a bit of a mystery.
However, the possibility of him using his linebackers in a traditional 3-4 manner became less likely Monday when inside linebacker Jake Ryan suffered what appeared to be a serious right knee injury.
Ryan went down in an 11-on-11 drill in which he was pursuing rookie wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown after a short catch in the flat. After Ryan grabbed at his knee in obvious pain, some teammates bowed their heads and took a knee as the trainers attended to him.
“He was just devastated,” said inside linebacker Blake Martinez, who spoke with Ryan after he was carted to the locker room. “Obviously, he was super-excited about the season. He’s been putting a tremendous amount of work in.
“He’s been awesome throughout OTAs and these past four practices. It’s been good for him. It’s just really tough.”
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The Packers did not release any details on the injury and Ryan wasn’t scheduled to undergo an MRI until Tuesday, but if it is a torn ACL, Ryan would be lost for the season. Ryan is in the final year of his original four-year deal and was scheduled to make $1.907 million in base salary this season.
Of all the Packers' inside linebackers, Ryan most fit the mold of the old 3-4 defenses, a run-stopper able to battle offensive linemen and shoot gaps.
Ryan was starting in the base defense, but Pettine has used numerous combinations with Martinez, replacing Ryan with cornerback Quentin Rollins, safeties Josh Jones and Jermaine Whitehead, and rookie linebacker Oren Burks in the dime package.
Burks was drafted in the third round because the Packers thought his size (6-3, 233), wingspan (79 ½ inches) and speed (4.59 seconds in the 40-yard dash) made him a perfect fit for the hybrid safety/linebacker position that has evolved in response to the many athletic tight ends that have entered the league.
The Packers decided not to address the inside linebacker position with a traditional run-stopping linebacker at all, choosing instead to take some flyers on young players who had played other positions in college.
First-year free agent Ahmad Thomas was a safety at Oklahoma. Undrafted rookie Greer Martini was an outside rusher as a junior at Notre Dame before moving inside last year. Undrafted rookie Naashon Hughes was a defensive end at Texas before moving into a hybrid position his senior year. Marcus Porter is undersized and played at Fairmont State.
All have been seeing snaps at inside linebacker with the No. 2 or 3 defenses during the first four days of training camp.
The most important question the Packers must ask themselves should Ryan be lost for the season is whether they can play with just one traditional inside linebacker.
An option they could explore if they figure they can’t is moving Clay Matthews inside on early downs. Pettine has played four-man fronts with three defensive linemen and an “elephant” linebacker at other stops in his career and linebacker Nick Perry would be a better option for that fourth spot than Matthews.
Moving Matthews inside would be one way to get both Perry and Matthews on the field in a 4-3 look.
If Gutekunst is anything like his predecessor, Ted Thompson, he’ll let things play out for a while rather than pursue a street free agent such as NaVorro Bowman, Lawrence Timmons or Brian Cushing. He added Burks and the others for a reason and needs to find out whether one of them can handle the responsibility of replacing Ryan.
Martinez gathered the three rookies and Thomas over to the sideline after practice and told them the onus is on them to fill Ryan’s absence.
“It just comes down to 'What are we going to do now?'” Martinez said. “Are we going to sit back and be, 'OK, well I'm just going to play now because Jake's out.' What are you going to do to get better every day? What are you going to do to make the plays that Jake would have been making?”
First in line in the short term is Burks, who has played both in the base defense and the nickel and dime packages during the first four practices. Athletically, there’s little doubt that he can drop into zone, run with tight ends and cover backs in the flat.
Burks had to play coverage as a safety in Vanderbilt’s defense and rushed as an outside linebacker, so he’s done it all.
“The athleticism and having the experience at safety helps me out playing dime and ‘Will’ (base) when needed,” Burks said of playing inside linebacker. “That’s kind of what the game is moving toward, more athletic tight ends and running backs and you have to have the skill to cover them.
“That’s been kind of my role and I play to that.”
Taking on 320-pound guards in the run game will be part of his role if he starts in the base defense and that’s going to be much harder to handle, especially in a 3-4 look. Pettine’s strength is supposed to be crafting his defense around his personnel, so he may have to make some adjustments for Burks.
At 6-3, 232 pounds, Martini is thin for the inside position, but he started in Notre Dame’s base defense last year before tearing cartilage in his knee. Though he returned in eight days, he was not the same player and scouts didn’t grade him very highly.
The Packers signed him after he took part in rookie orientation camp on a tryout basis and he found himself on some starting special teams units at the start of training camp. It’s likely his role will be mostly special teams if he makes the team, but he’s not giving up on a starting spot.
“I think as an undrafted free agent you have to make yourself valuable in any way you can,” Martini said. “So, I have to show up every day and keep improving.”
Hughes was a team captain for the Longhorns and served as a mentor to many younger players last season for a new coaching staff. At 6-3, 259 pounds, he has the size to play a run-stopping role, but he moved around a lot in college and has a lot to learn about playing inside full-time.
“It just makes you that much better as a player if you can play multiple positions just because you never know what happens,” Hughes said. “You just always want to be ready and step in where you can.”
And that’s exactly what the Packers need someone to do. Right now.