Green Bay Packers: Inside Linebacker is Suddenly a Position of Strength

Blake Martinez II

Linebacker Blake Martinez

You have to hand it to Ted Thompson. Yes, he has his share of critics, but the depth he has assembled for the 2016 Green Bay Packers is the best I have seen since Thompson first started his tenure as general manager in 2005.

Since Thompson brought in Mike McCarthy as head coach in 2006, the Packers have been as successful as any team in the NFL.The Packers have had a 104-55-1 record during that time, which breaks down to a .653 winning percentage.

The Packers have also gone to the playoffs eight times, won five NFC North titles and also won Super Bowl XLV.

This year, it seems like almost every position is deep. Especially if one looks at the wide receiver, linebacker and defensive back positions.

There certainly will be some very difficult cuts when the final 53-man roster is configured on September 3.

One position that was considered a weakness in 2015, has all of a sudden become a strength. That would be the inside linebacker position. At least based on the play of the linebackers vying for spots there in training camp and in preseason games.

In 2015, for the second consecutive year, Clay Matthews moved inside to man one spot. No. 52 did well enough to earn another bid to the Pro Bowl. But the other inside linebacker position was in a state of flux all season.

Sam Barrington suffered an ankle injury in Week 1 and was lost for the year because of the injury. Nate Palmer then stepped in and was third on the team in tackles (80) for the season, but he never flashed any big plays, plus gave up too many.

That is why rookie Jake Ryan got an opportunity to play later in the season, as he started five games. No. 47 also started the two postseason games that the Packers played in. Ryan looked more comfortable with each and every start. Ryan averaged eight tackles a game in his seven overall starts.

One of the biggest issues that the Packers had last season was using one of the inside linebackers as a cover linebacker on passing plays. The job ended up going to Joe Thomas. Thomas was okay in coverage, but not great.

The Packers have certainly changed the landscape at inside linebacker this year with two big changes.

For one, the team decided that Matthews will move back to outside linebacker, which is his more natural position and allows him to better use his speed.

Also, the Packers drafted Blake Martinez of Stanford in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft.

So far, in OTAs, training camp and preseason games, the Packers have to be thrilled with the way Martinez has performed.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how well Martinez has been playing.

Bottom line, Martinez looks to be a three-down linebacker. No. 50 will play in the base, the nickel and the dime.

It appeared that Ryan would be playing next to him at inside linebacker, at least based on the OTAs and the early part of training camp. However, a hamstring injury put Ryan on the shelf for a couple of weeks and he has just this week returned to practice.

That situation opened the door for Barrington, who recently came off the PUP list. Barrington has looked good in his limited playing time so far, similar to how he played in the second half of the 2014 season when he became a starter.

In terms of roster spots, I believe that Martinez, Ryan and Barrington are locks to make the team.

Carl Bradford

Linebacker Carl Bradford

But two other players have looked exceptional in the two preseason games so far.

One player is Thomas, who has bulked up a bit and been very steady. The other player is Carl Bradford, the former fourth-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Bradford is playing like the light has finally been turned on for him in terms of what he should be doing in his role on defense.

Both players are playing well overall so far this preseason and both have flashed big play ability.

Both Thomas (South Carolina State) and Bradford (Arizona State) were tackling machines in college and are playing like that now.

The key for both of them is to continue the momentum they have created in the next two preseason games. If that happens, the Packers will have some difficult decisions to make.

The odds are pretty strong that the Packers will keep either Thomas or Bradford. Especially with Ryan just coming back from his hamstring woes and Barrington coming off an ankle injury which cost him an entire season.

There is also a chance that the Packers might keep both Thomas and Bradford. That would mean keeping five inside linebackers on the roster.

Sound farfetched? Not if the Packers keep 11 linebackers on their roster, which is what I believe they might do.

The four  outside linebackers who would be locks on the team would be Matthews, Julius Peppers, Nick Perry and Datone Jones. Jayrone Elliott, Lerentee McCray and rookie Kyle Fackrell are fighting for the other two spots, if the team kept six OLBs.

Based on history, the odds are strong that Fackrell will be kept, seeing the team invested a third-round pick on him.

That being the case, it might come down to Elliott and McCray battling for the final spot.

Being able to play well on special teams will probably be the overriding factor for anyone on the bubble fighting for a roster spot at linebacker.

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