GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers didn’t have to wait until the formal start of 2020 free agency to sign a player, with a source confirming they inked linebacker Christian Kirksey to a two-year deal.
Kirksey was released by the Cleveland Browns on March 10 and as a vested veteran, he was free to sign with any team immediately. He visited the Packers on March 12 and had his physical taken then.
A league source said the deal is worth a total of $16 million, but the Houston Chronicle reported much of that comes through roster bonuses and other incentives.
Packers free-agency tracker: Live updates, breaking news from Green Bay and around the NFL
Kirksey, who will be 28 by the start of the regular season, will be entering his seventh season. He has played just nine games the last two years, and one league linebackers coach said Kirksey is a “good fit” for the Packers but is a huge injury risk.
Kirksey last played a full season in 2017 for the Browns, but he has been a team captain. He has suffered season-ending muscle injuries the last two years, with a hamstring injury ending his 2018 season after seven games and a torn pectoral muscle finishing 2019 prematurely.
He fits the age and locker room profile Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst outlined as important factors in the team’s new approach to free agency last year. Kirksey was a Browns captain, and one former teammate told PackersNews.com he is a good guy.
Former University of Wisconsin Badgers and Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas tweeted to Kirksey “You will go down in history as one of the great Cleveland Browns of all time, not only for what you did on the field, but the lives that you impacted in the community, in the locker room and in and around the offices of the Cleveland Browns.”
But, Kirksey’s recent health issues do run counter to Gutekunst’s stated emphasis on durability. That said, Kirksey did not miss a game in his first four seasons.
Kirksey is 6 feet, 2 inches and 235 pounds and was the Browns’ third-round pick (No. 71) out of Iowa in 2014 when Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was the head coach in Cleveland. He has never had more than 3.5 sacks in a season and has 11.5 in his career, though he has recorded over 130 combined tackles in two seasons (2016-17). He also has two career interceptions, both coming in 2018.
The analytics service Pro Football Focus has considered Kirksey a solid tackler who possesses some coverage ability in the years he played full seasons.
The signing could spell the end of Blake Martinez’s career roaming the middle of the defense for the Packers, as Kirksey is an inside linebacker and is not considered the complementary type of run-stuffer or pure coverage linebacker to match with Martinez.
At the NFL scouting combine in late February, the Packers had interest in re-signing Martinez but the club elected to move quickly on Kirksey before the legal tampering window opened Monday.