Jake Ryan ready to contribute at ILB
Watch the film, and Jake Ryan's instincts are the first thing that stand out.
The Michigan senior is about as "linebacker" as it gets. Always in the right place. Always finishing plays. He fits the position naturally.
So when Ryan returned from a torn ACL that forced him to miss half of his junior season, it didn't stop Wolverines coaches from changing his position. Ryan, a strongside linebacker in Michigan's 4-3 defense his first three seasons, played middle linebacker for the first time in his career. There, he had to cover more ground, expected to always be around the football.
His instincts came in handy.
"I think when you're an outside 'backer," Ryan said, "I was on the line, on the tight end, I was looking at one thing the whole entire time. When you're an inside guy, you're looking at the backs, you're looking at anything that can happen in front of you. There is a lot of stuff going on in the middle, but as the games went on I got used to it.
"So I'm really feeling the middle linebacker."
With his college career finished, Ryan will need to keep feeling inside linebacker some more.
The Green Bay Packers drafted him with their first pick Saturday, No. 129 overall in the fourth round. The selection was general manager Ted Thompson's 100th draft pick with the Packers, more than any NFL team since 2005.
It also laid to rest complaints from a disgruntled fan base that the Packers hadn't addressed arguably their most glaring weakness through the draft's first two days.
"He kind of just said, 'Maybe they'll get off my back now,'" director of player personnel Eliot Wolf said. "You know, I honestly don't believe that had any bearing in the pick."
Maybe not, but Ryan gives the Packers an option to move outside linebacker Clay Matthews to the edge, where he can be used more effectively as a pass rusher. Of course, Ryan didn't know the details of his new team's depth chart when he spoke with Green Bay media Saturday.
Like many of the eight players Thompson drafted this weekend, Ryan had minimal contact with the Packers over the past few months. He met with them at the NFL combine in February. New Packers defensive front assistant Jerry Montgomery also was Michigan's defensive line coach during Ryan's first three years with the program.
Still, Ryan walks into a situation that could present the opportunity to play, if not start, early in his career. Packers coach Mike McCarthy warned against handing out jobs prematurely. He hasn't even seen his new roster on the practice field together yet.
"There's been no starting positions assigned today," McCarthy said, "and there won't be tomorrow."
Regardless, Ryan figures to be in the mix when the Packers sort out their inside linebacker depth chart. For one, his instincts are undeniable. But Ryan showed at the combine he's more than just a heady player.
He could be an ideal player to pair with fellow inside linebacker Sam Barrington. He has the measurables to play strong inside linebacker, standing 6-foot-2 3/8 and 240 pounds. Barrington is 6-foot-1, 246 pounds.
Ryan also has good speed for his size.
"I think he tested a little better than what people expected," Wolf said. "He ran a 4.61 40. The instincts are something that really stand out. He can get through traffic, he can make plays on the outside. He can penetrate and make plays on the inside run. Pretty good in coverage, kind of an all-around guy that we felt adds really good value to our team."
Wolf said he expects Ryan to perform better in zone coverage than man-to-man, but the Packers see him as the three-down linebacker they needed. He'll need to develop as a coverage linebacker. His plus-3.6 coverage grade ranked 32nd among inside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus.
The advanced metrics site tracked Ryan as allowing 17 completions on 26 targets for 194 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and one defended pass. The opposing quarterback's rating was 71.6 when targeting Ryan.
It's Ryan's ability to defend the run that could make an immediate impact. Ryan was second among all inside linebackers in the draft with a 14.5 run stop percentage, which is Pro Football Focus' measurement of what percentage of run defense snaps a player is responsible for making a stop.
Ryan's run defense production grade of plus-20.6 was fourth among inside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus.
"I think 'instinctively' is a good word to describe how I play," Ryan said. "I have good instincts, I've been told. I think I've got pretty good speed. A lot of film work goes into football, so just knowing what's happening before I play, I think is huge."
It's a challenge for every rookie to adjust to professional football. Ryan offered no assurances Saturday, something his new head coach surely will appreciate. He simply wants to come in, keep his head down and contribute.
He expects those instincts to lead the way.
"It would be awesome to make an impact," Ryan said, "but I'm going to go in there, work as hard as I can, try to get in the best shape I can and just do everything I need to do to be successful there."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood