One year ago the Packers made a big splash during the NFL offseason by signing four top free agents. Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos were pivotal in the Packers defensive transformation while Billy Turner helped solidify the offensive line. The Packers showed that the Ted Thompson era was officially over and free agency was going to be interesting again.
The start of the 2020 offseason was no different. The Packers signed former Cleveland Browns’ linebacker Christian Kirksey. The highly sought after linebacker visited the Bills and Raiders after visiting Green Bay on March 12th. Just four days later the Packers signed Kirksey to a two year, $16 million contract. The first year of the deal has a $5 million cap hit while the second year will only hold a $2 million cap hit.
The Packers had a great need for an inside linebacker. Packers’ free agent Blake Martinez manned the middle of the Packers’ defense for the last four seasons, but had fans divided on his worth. Martinez led the Packers in tackles and was second in the NFL last season, but struggled in coverage and consistency. The Packers defense made big plays last year, but very few came from the LB position. They looked to add another playmaker to join the Smith Brothers and a talented secondary. With reports coming out that Martinez wanted $10 million a year on his next contract, the Packers needed to move on and it looks like they rightfully did.
Enter Christian Kirksey. He is an incredibly athletic linebacker running a 4.72 40 yard dash at the combine. He has the speed to be all over the field and make the big plays the Packers were missing at inside linebacker last season. Kirksey holds the ability to be on the field for all three downs with solid pass and strong run defense. The two seasons that Kirksey started and played in all 16 games he racked up 286 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, six sacks, and two forced fumbles. Compare those to Blake Martinez who had 299 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and one forced fumble. The numbers are very comparable, but the big difference is that Martinez wanted over $10 million a year whereas Kirksey’s biggest cap hit will be $8 million.
Kirksey also brings an upside that Martinez simply did not seem to have. Over the past two seasons, Martinez played what seems to be his best football. You know what you will get with Martinez, which is a serviceable linebacker who will make plays, but does not seem to possess the big play ability. Kirksey has an instinct to make the big plays and be in the right place at the right time.
The biggest downside to Kirksey seems to be his injury history. He played seven games in the 2018 season and was placed on IR after tearing his pectoral muscles during the second week against the Jets. The Packers hope that Kirksey finds his health in Green Bay and fits perfectly into a star studded defense. Kirksey plays behind a defensive line that has the Smith brothers and Kenny Clark opening up gaps for him to fill. Kirksey will be playing with one of the most talented defenses he has played with before and joins former coach Mike Pettine. The familiarity should help Kirksey fit right into the Packers’ scheme and make an immediate impact.
If the Packers and Kirksey’s plans don’t fall through and Kirksey falls to injury, the Packers have an out after this season. As mentioned earlier in the article, the Packers only have a $2 million cap hit during the 2021 season if they release Kirksey. The deal seems to be a high reward low risk signing that brings a solid veteran with great playmaking ability to a position that has lacked it for years.