Antonio Morrison deal deepens Packers' ILB depth after injury to Oren Burks
GREEN BAY - It was a drill Oren Burks has done his entire life. The Green Bay Packers rookie linebacker mimicked like he was going to shed a block. He jammed his arms and hands into a teammate’s chest, but not too hard.
This was pregame warmups, half speed.
Only this time, Burks said, he felt pain shoot through his left shoulder immediately. “Hit it weird,” he reasoned. Before kickoff against the Oakland Raiders on Friday night, Burks’ left shoulder did something it had never done before, popping out of its socket.
At his locker Sunday afternoon, Burks didn’t share many details but said his MRI results were encouraging. Team doctors have not discussed any possibility for surgery, Burks said.
“Actually, it’s better than we anticipated,” coach Mike McCarthy said of Burks’ prognosis. “So it should not be a long-term deal.”
Burks’ availability for the Packers' season opener Sept. 9 against the Chicago Bears remains in question. After the injury, general manager Brian Gutekunst had to decide how to stock an inside linebacker position already thin because of veteran Jake Ryan’s torn ACL earlier in camp.
The Packers took a significant step toward infusing the position with experience Sunday when they traded cornerback Lenzy Pipkins to the Indianapolis Colts for inside linebacker Antonio Morrison, a fourth-round pick in 2016 who started 15 games last season.
The Packers hope Morrison’s arrival can steady the rest of their defense. One option to replace Burks was moving pass rusher Clay Matthews to inside linebacker. Matthews played 24 games at inside linebacker, starting midway through the 2014 season. He was inside through the entire 2015 season, but has since returned to his natural position at outside linebacker.
Matthews is the team’s most talented linebacker whether he’s off the line of scrimmage or on the edge, but he said Sunday there hasn’t been any indication he’ll move inside.
“There’s been no talk or mention or even insinuation of me going inside,” Matthews said. “So that would be news to me. Most of the years, I have a pretty good idea if they want me going inside or outside or playing both, but this year I think the focus right now is strictly on the outside linebacker position until further notice.”
It would be asking Matthews to make a significant sacrifice if he were to move inside. He’s entering the final year of his contract, and his year and a half at inside linebacker has already limited his career sack production. The less he plays on the edge this fall, the more it could limit his value on the open market.
Matthews gave no indication if he was willing to move inside – “It’s all hypothetical right now,” he said – but Morrison’s arrival might help the Packers keep their best pass rusher in a role where he can primarily pressure the quarterback.
“I anticipate staying on the edge,” Matthews said.
The trade swaps two players who were unlikely to make a roster with their current team, but could fill roles in their new defenses. Behind Blake Martinez, the Packers' top inside linebackers were undrafted first-year player Ahmad Thomas and undrafted rookie Greer Martini. Thomas joined the Packers' practice squad late last season and Martini has been the team’s top undrafted rookie in camp, but neither has played an NFL snap.
Morrison has experience, but it’s uncertain how much he can contribute. Not only is he joining the Packers late in camp, but he had fallen out of favor in Indianapolis. Morrison was on the Colts' third-string defense this month, especially notable given Indy’s defensive struggles.
A run stopper, Morrison has limited range in coverage and ran a 5.1-second 40 at the NFL combine two years ago. He gives the Packers a viable, early-down linebacker for a cornerback who wasn’t making their roster. A year ago, Morrison played 75 percent of the snaps for a Colts defense that finished 30th in points allowed, 30th in total yards and 26th against the run.
“Antonio is obviously an experienced linebacker,” McCarthy said, “and if you look at the youth of the group, something that we felt we needed to add.”
Pipkins, an undrafted rookie last year, spent last season on the Packers’ 53-man roster and appeared in 12 games, but he had fallen near the bottom of the depth chart during a quiet camp. He was making the league minimum ($555,000) this year and had a cap number of $556,666. The Packers will absorb another $1,666 next year as part of his $5,000 original signing bonus.
Morrison’s base is $630,000, so the Packers lose $73,334 in cap space.
Perhaps Morrison will benefit from the fresh start. The Packers still need a linebacker with the athleticism to cover running backs and tight ends in the middle of the field, at least until Burks returns. Burks was drafted in the third round to fill that role in the team’s subpackage defense.
Now, the Packers will have to made do until his shoulder heals.
“It’s a little frustrating,” Burks said, “but life goes on. You’ve just got to keep rolling with the punches and try to get better. Control what you can. That’s a freak accident, and you’ve just got to keep rolling with it.”