Additions still needed but Packers seem comfortable with LB position

Linebacker is still a need that the Green Bay Packers have to address, but GM Brian Gutekunst is more comfortable now with where that position group is at than he was at the NFL Combine.

The linebacker position is currently made up of Quay Walker and Isaiah McDuffie. As I wrote about recently, it’s looking like McDuffie is going to play a very large role for the defense this upcoming season.

McDuffie played over 500 snaps last season, and was particularly sound as a tackler and against the run—not to mention that McDuffie played his final college season with Jeff Hafley as his head coach. Free agent options are also running very low and the draft class overall at the linebacker position is so-so.

The Packers would re-sign Eric Wilson, who has played almost 2,300 career defensive snaps and saw playing time last season on obvious passing downs. Kristian Welch, a core special teams contributor, was re-signed as well.

“I feel really good about Isaiah,” said Gutekunst at the NFL Owners’ Meetings. “We obviously signed Eric Wilson back. We signed Kristian Welch back. Two guys who were here last year and played a lot on teams. Eric’s got some history playing linebacker in this league.

“So I feel much better now. But again, we’ll add, whether it’s the draft or later on in free agency, I’m sure we’ll add to that competition in that room. But I do feel better about it today then when I spoke with you guys last.”

More depth at the linebacker position is something that is going to be needed. At the NFL Combine, Gutekunst mentioned that in shifting to a 4-3 defense, while he didn’t expect a big change personnel-wise, he did anticipate needing more bodies, both to get through training camp and in building out the 53-man roster and practice squad.

On paper, it’s easy to make a case that linebacker remains a major need for the Packers. And while I don’t doubt that, to a degree, Gutekunst feels that way as well, it also seems that, on the inside, there isn’t as much of a concern about the current makeup of this group.

The new Hafley defense should really benefit Walker and his skill set, especially with Hafley making it clear that his intention is to put Walker in positions to make plays. As alluded to, McDuffie proved to be a capable starter last season, and although the Packers’ new “base” defense will be a 4-3, they will still primarily be playing out of nickel, which requires only two inside linebackers.

On top of all that, with salary cap flexibility, not that the Packers would deviate from their free agency evaluations and what they feel is an appropriate contract, but one would think they would have acted with a bit more urgency in addressing the need if they felt there was a major hole on the roster there.

“All three of those linebackers are pretty interchangeable in my mind,” said Gutekunst. “You know, that extra linebacker, it’ll be interesting how we go about it this year, but he’s only on the field 15 percent of the time or less of the time. I think the most a team utilized that was close to 20 percent, so it’s not a lot. All three of those guys, I don’t know if there’s a whole lot of different skill set. They’ve got to be able to do everything we’re asking them to do from an instinctual, in the run game and pass game.”

As the roster is constructed at the moment, Walker would likely slot in as the weak-side linebacker when in base, with McDuffie in the middle. The strong-side linebacker role is still up in the air, but as Gutekunst goes about continuing to build out this position group, he’s focused more on finding interchangable skill sets, rather than trying to fill a specific role.

“Quite frankly for me,” added Gutekunst, “and I’ve talked about this a lot, you’ve got to be very careful pigeonholing guys in positions that can only do certain skill sets. We have so many injuries in this game that he may be the strong-side linebacker today but he may be starting at Will or Mike for five or six games, he’s got to be able to do all of that. So from a personnel man’s perspective, I want those guys as versatile as can be so that when those things do pop up we don’t have to change the way we play.”

With few options remaining in free agency, we probably won’t see the Packers make any more additions in that capacity until after the draft, and only if Gutekunst feels that linebacker is still a need at that time.

As far as the draft goes, PFF has five linebackers ranked in the top 100, this includes Payton Wilson, Edgerrin Cooper, Junior Colson, Jeremiah Trotter, and Marist Liufau. North Carolina’s Cedric Gray is another name to know. In terms of potential impact, this is where the biggest potential upgrade will come for the Packers, but very likely only in a rotational role.

On two occasions this offseason Gutekunst has brought up the idea of using the surplus of draft capital that they have to make a trade for a veteran. While he never specifically said for a linebacker, that of course is a position that makes sense to add to, but again, options are likely very limited, or maybe even non-existent.

Perhaps because of the circumstance that the Packers find themselves in, Gutekunst has no choice but to be okay with where they stand at linebacker. But, my guess is that in a defense that will still predominantly have two linebackers on the field, the Packers are comfortable with Walker and McDuffie as their starters, along with Wilson and a rookie as their depth.

”To me, inside backers are inside backers,” said Gutekunst. “Certainly they will be asked to do slightly different things but a lot of that is crossover. Either they’re going to have to play off the ball, defeat blocks, and go make tackles and they’re going to have to cover guys out of the backfield. But at the same time the majority of the time we are going to be in nickel. That’s really your base defense now is nickel. Base has become a sub-package.”

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Title: Additions still needed but Packers seem comfortable with LB position
Author: Paul Bretl

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