Feels like the Packers can’t catch a break sometimes. Only four days into training camp they lost surefire starter Jake Ryan to a torn ACL, and safety Kentrell Brice, who had been running with the starters, went down the same day with an ankle injury. Fortunately, Brice’s ankle injury doesn’t appear to be season ending, but Ryan’s year is done before it ever got off the ground. The injury is unfortunate for Ryan and the Packers. 2018 is the fourth and final year of Ryan’s rookie contract, meaning he won’t have a chance to show what he’s worth and will have teams worried about his future health as he tries to negotiate a future deal. For the Packers, the injury means finding a way to replace the 81 tackles that Ryan put up across 15 games and 12 starts in 2017. As defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said in a press conference Wednesday, “unfortunately that’s parto of [the game], but the train keeps moving.” Rather than hang their heads at the news about Ryan, the Packers move forward. Without further ado, here’s four ways Green Bay can replace Jake Ryan.
1. Next Man Up
This is the most obvious and the least inspiring of the options the Packers have. They invested a third-round pick in April’s draft in Oren Burks, a linebacker out of Vanderbilt. In the short period of time since Ryan went down Burks has been running with the starting defense and getting in some work with the microphone in his helmet, leading the calls on the field. NFL.com rated Burks as a future backup in their pre-draft profile, but he has the prototypical size and athleticism you look for in the position. The team thought highly of him to make him a third-round selection, the question now is how fast can he live up to his potential.
Other potential fits at inside linebacker include Greer Martini, an undrafted player out of Notre Dame, and Ahmad Thomas, who went undrafted out of Oklahoma last year and is a safety turned inside linebacker. Both Martini and Thomas have high upsides but they look like projects. It would be quite the surprise if either of them were able to jump in and have a large impact right away.
2. Move Clay Inside
Matthews was moved inside a few years back and posted the best tackle numbers of his career (61 in 2014 and 66 in 2015). He’s a capable run stopper in the middle and certainly has more experience than any other option on the Packers’ roster. The problem with this move is, of course, at outside linebacker. The quality of the position is lacking behind Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, and unless Vince Biegel or Kyler Fackrell bursts onto the scene it’s hard to imagine not having Clay play outside. The reason moving Clay inside remains a possibility is Pettine. The new defensive coordinator is known for using defensive lineman and stunts to generate pass rush. If the team relies on Mike Daniels, Mo Wilkerson, and Kenny Clark to swallow the run game and provide adequate pass rush, Clay’s absence on the outside won’t be as pronounced.
3. Free Agent Help
Of course bringing in free agent help is always a possibility. Players such as NaVorro Bowman, Lawrence Timmons, Brian Cushing, and Karlos Dansby remain unsigned. While none of those players are who they were in their prime, we don’t need them to be the pro-bowlers they once were. We just need them to replace Jake Ryan and play decent defense. Bowman is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch. He had a four season stretch with San Francisco from 2011 to 2015 (he missed 2014 due to injury) where he recorded 590 combined tackles (147.5 per season). In 15 games split between San Francisco and Oakland last year he recorded an impressive 127 tackles. At 30, he’s one of the younger veterans still on the market and one of the few who could, at present, represent an upgrade from Jake Ryan. Dansby is the oldest of the bunch, but even he recorded 95 tackles in 16 games with Arizona last year. The point is, capable veterans remain out there to be had, if only the Packers choose to sign them.
4. Get Smaller
This move would entail moving a secondary player to inside linebacker. Both Josh Jones and Quinten Rollins have spent time at linebacker thus far in training camp and they both have the size of an undersized linebacker as opposed to a scrawny corner. While they would be great pass defenders and could potentially be sneaky pass rushers, their ability to step up as run defenders is highly questionable. Jones especially is a hard nosed tackler, but his ability to take on lineman and fullbacks consistently can be reasonably doubted. However, if one of them can prove a scrappy enough player in the interior run game then they could find themselves a starting role at linebacker.
An obvious fault of this plan is that Jones is likely the next man up at safety behind Kentrell Brice, meaning the team would need to figure out another solution there. But there appears to be a greater wealth of secondary players than inside linebackers, so moving Jones up could make sense.
Whatever the team does, there isn’t reason to panic quite yet. Every team faces preseason injuries, and the loss of just Jake Ryan as a starter isn’t reason to sound the alarm. The team has options and will likely explore most, if not all of them. Currently they are getting a look at Burks and others, if they feel they need some extra help they can dip into the market. General Manager Brian Gutekunst has shown to be more than willing to explore every avenue for improving the roster that he can. While it’s not ideal, it’s far from backbreaking. As Pettine said, it’s unfortunate, but the train keeps moving.