Last January, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said he wanted to “take a long look” at his group of inside linebackers. He responded by letting Blake Martinez into free agency, signing veteran Christian Kirksey, drafting Kamal Martin and signing undrafted free agent Krys Barnes.
Now, Gutekunst wants better production from position, and the improvement may come from the young players already on the roster.
“Yes, I think we have to have a more productive game,” Gutekunst said last month. “We had some injuries there at the beginning of the year. I was really proud of the way the guys stepped in, the way they competed. But I do think we need better production from our group of internal linebackers. I hope we have some young players who will grow and improve. I think we will see it advance. “
Kirksey missed five games through injury and could be a salary cap drop after just one season in Green Bay. Martin and Barnes went through the ups and downs of being rookies playing big plays in their early seasons. Ty Summers only saw brief action. Oren Burks, a third-round pick in 2018, played more on the edge than inside linebacker.
Pro Football Focus Ratings for Packers Inside Linebackers, 2020
Christian Kirksey: 48.3 (591 snapshots)
Krys Barnes: 43.0 (504)
Kamal Martin: 68.5 (208)
Ty Summers: 47.7 (41)
Oren Burks: 28.6 (96)
If Kirksey is released, Barnes and Martin would likely enter the 2021 season as favorites to start at inside linebacker, though a lot could change with new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, who specializes in linebacker.
The Packers could also turn to free agency to find a cheap veteran replacement for Kirksey, or spend another draft pick on a player they can develop in the new system.
Or they could redo the Kirksey deal and hope he can stay healthy and thrive on a new scheme.
It’s possible that a substantial inside upgrade or legitimate outside acquisition as an inside linebacker could turn the talented Packers defense into an overall elite group. The position, although devalued, is still important to stop the race and defend the center of the field in the air game.
It appears that Gutekunst may be happy to start next season with the young players he has already acquired at the position, relying on the expected progression to drive the necessary improvement. Barnes, a surprise starter in Week 1, showed toughness and instincts at times as a freshman. Martin, despite a knee injury in training camp, showed disruptive ability as an attacker.
Gutekunst’s attempts to fix the position, long a troubled area in Green Bay, have mostly failed. Burks has been a flop defensively, and the additions of veterans like Antonio Morrison, BJ Goodson and Kirksey haven’t worked. It can be up to Barnes and Martin to provide the production surge Gutekunst longs for as an inside linebacker in 2021.