Green Bay Packers

Green Bay's Linebacker Investment Is Already Paying Off

Photo Credit: Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Packers GM Brian Gutekunst finally got the message:

The inside linebacker position in today’s NFL is important – no, critical — if you want to play elite defense. A ball-hawking, run-stuffing, coverage-friendly inside backer is pivotal in helping a defense stymie and confuse opposing offenses.

Having one such player is great, but having two is a clear tactical advantage. By signing free agent De’Vondre Campbell to an extension (5 years/$50 million) and drafting Georgia’s Quay Walker with the team’s No. 1 pick (22nd overall) in this year’s draft, the Packers have finally acknowledged that ILB is a vital part of the modern-day NFL defense. Having two premium players at the position will allow defensive coordinator Joe Barry the opportunity to better disguise coverages, blitzes, and play gridiron chess games without having to make substitutions or force players out of position.

It’s hard to understand why the Packers haven’t placed more importance on talent at inside linebackers over the last decade. Still, it’s clear they never heavily invested in or prioritized the position until now.

Yes, the team spent a first-round pick on AJ Hawk in 2006 and got some good years from the former Ohio State star until they released him in 2015. Hawk was a fan favorite, played consistently, and was a team leader on a Super Bowl winner (2011). But as he declined, the Packers never did anything to significantly upgrade the spot, nor did they add much talent next to him.

For the better part of the last decade, the Packers’ inside linebacker spots have been an underwhelming combo of late-stage-career veteran, undrafted free agent, mid-to-late round draft pick, or the dreaded converted safety. It’s as if the Packers had made ILB the salary cap savings position.

Packers Inside Linebackers 2012-22:
2012

AJ Hawk – 1st Round Pick

Brad Jones – 7th Round Pick

Jamari Lattimore – Undrafted Free Agent

2013

AJ Hawk – 1st Round Pick

Brad Jones – 7th Round Pick

Jamari Lattimore – Undrafted Free Agent

2014

AJ Hawk – 1st Round Pick

Sam Barrington – 7th Round Pick

Jamari Lattimore – Undrafted Free Agent

Brad Jones – 7th Round Pick

2015

Nate Palmer – 6th Round Pick

Clay Matthews – 1st Round Pick (late career move inside from OLB)

Joe Thomas – Undrafted Free Agent

2016

Jake Ryan – 4th Round Pick

Blake Martinez – 4th Round Pick

Joe Thomas – Undrafted Free Agent

2017

Jake Ryan – 4th Round Pick

Blake Martinez – 4th Round Pick

Joe Thomas – Undrafted Free Agent

2018

Blake Martinez – 4th Round Pick

Antonio Morrison – 4th Round Pick (by Colts) acquired via Trade

Oren Burks – 3rd Round Pick

James Crawford – Undrafted Free Agent

Korey Toomer 5th round (Seattle)

2019

Blake Martinez – 4th Round Pick

BJ Goodson – Undrafted Free Agent

Oren Burks – 3rd Round Pick

Ty Summers – 7th Round Pick

2020

Krys Barnes – Undrafted Free Agent

Christian Kirksey – Free Agent Signing (Cleveland 3rd Round Pick in 2014)

James Burgess – Undrafted Free Agent

Oren Burks – 3rd Round Draft Pick

Kamal Martin – 5th Round Pick

Ty Summers – 7th Round Pick

2021

Krys Barnes – Undrafted Free Agent

De’Vondre Campbell – Free Agent Signing

Oren Burks – 3rd Round Pick

Isaiah McDuffie – 6th Round Pick

Ty Summers – 7th Round Pick

2022

De’Vondre Campbell – Free Agent Signing

Quay Walker  – 1st Round Pick

Isaiah McDuffie – 6th Round Pick

At one point in 2014, instead of signing a free agent to upgrade the position, they converted all-world outside linebacker Clay Matthews to inside backer, which yielded some positive results. But by staying in-house, it also highlighted then-Packers GM Ted Thompson‘s aversion to spending new money or draft capital at the position.

The Packers also flirted with schemes where a safety would come up and play ILB in various packages, which always seemed to beg for opposing teams to successfully run up the middle. According to Pro Football Reference, the Packers fielded two top 12 rushing defenses (8th in 2016, 11th in 2021) in the last decade. Otherwise, they finished 14th or worse eight out of ten years and worse than 17th seven of those years.

It’s also important to acknowledge that you can’t have first-round picks at every position, and you can’t sign elite free agents at every spot along the roster. But the game tape and the box score stats for the last decade showed a glaring mediocrity from the inside linebacker spot, plain and simple.

Starting in 2012, the Packers defense as a whole finished 11th, 25th, 14th, 12th, 21st, 26th, 22nd, 9th, 13th, and 13th last year. That’s underwhelming for a perennial Super Bowl favorite. Fortunately for the Packers, by making huge investments in De’Vondre Campbell and Quay Walker in 2022, the dividends are already showing up on the field and in the win column.

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