GREEN BAY — Joe Barry didn’t exactly answer the question. The Green Bay Packers new defensive coordinator, having coached inside linebackers during his career when not running his own defenses, was asked shortly after getting his new gig whether his scheme placed more importance on the inside linebacker position.
“I think at any position, but the inside linebacker position specifically, I think instincts, awareness — some people call it ‘FBI,’ football instincts — (are) so important,” Barry said. “That’s why the evaluation process is so vital, because I equate playing inside linebacker very similar to playing running back.
“I thought I was a pretty good linebacker coach. But as good a coach as you are … you can’t teach a (player) how to have instincts and awareness. Linebackers specifically, we can teach guys how to use their hands a little bit better, we can teach them how to play a little bit more square. We can teach them what to key and what to specifically look at. But good linebackers, they’re given instincts, they’re given awareness. That’s not coached.
“Specifically (at) that position, we’ll see how it plays out.”
Barry will have plenty of options at that position, with second-year linebackers Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin seemingly the favorites among holdovers on the roster. Then again, while they were ex-defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s preferred starters a year ago when they were available, Barry may prefer recently added De'Vondre Campbell, a 70-game starter with Atlanta and Arizona over the past five seasons who signed with the team in June.
Or, perhaps former draft picks Oren Burks (third round, 2018) or Ty Summers (seventh round, 2019) will get new opportunities in a new scheme. Or maybe rookie sixth-round pick Isaiah McDuffie will earn an early opportunity the way Barnes (an undrafted free agent) and Martin (a fifth-round pick) did last year.
“The position’s the position, it’s really about running to the ball and getting guys on the grass,” inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, who worked under Barry in Washington, said when asked for his expectations for his guys in the new system. “That part of it, the job description, is very similar. The group got a lot of experience last year. There’s a lot of guys that played a lot of football for us. We’ve got four guys that started games for us (in the past) in that room, which is a good thing.
“There’s going to be some transition as far as the defense, but they’re all guys that have proven that they can learn a defense and do good things out on the football field.”
The Packers moved on from veteran Christian Kirksey after just one season, having signed him to replace departed free agent Blake Martinez (now with the New York Giants). Campbell gives them an intriguing veteran option if the youngsters aren’t what Barry needs at the position.
“We’ve got some good young linebackers,” Campbell said. “For me, my job is to try to come in and learn the defense as quickly as I can and try to pass along as much of my knowledge as I can to these younger guys so they can be become the players they’re capable of being.”
Here’s a closer look at the inside linebackers as the Packers prepare for training camp, which begins with the team’s first full-squad practice on Wednesday:
51 Krys Barnes: 6-foot-2, 229 pounds, 23 years old, second year from UCLA.
54 Kamal Martin: 6-3, 240, 23, second year from Minnesota.
44 Ty Summers: 6-1, 241, 25, third year from TCU.
42 Oren Burks: 6-3, 233, 26, fourth year from Vanderbilt.
59 De'Vondre Campbell: 6-4, 232, 28, sixth year from Minnesota.
58 Isaiah McDuffie: 6-1, 227, 22, rookie from Boston College.
46 De’Jon Harris: 6-0, 231, 23, rookie from Arkansas.
57 Ray Wilborn: 6-3, 230, 24, second year from Ball State.
Are Barnes and Martin really the answers?
Despite missing a month after testing positive for COVID-19, Barnes started 12 games (including both playoff games) as a rookie and finished tied for second on the team in tackles. And despite spending the first six weeks of the regular season on injured reserve after suffering a training-camp knee injury and one game while on the COVID-19 reserve list, Martin still played in 12 games (six starts) including the postseason and finished with 25 tackles, including three for loss, and a sack. Considering the circumstances, both laid strong groundwork as rookies, but they’re not guaranteed anything in a new defense.
“It’s always a whirlwind for a rookie to kind of transition into the NFL and they’re trying to learn stuff and learn how the NFL works,” Olivadotti said. “Being able to focus (because) you kind of know what the NFL is about, a little bit at least, you can focus on the techniques and those kinds of things. (But) every year is a new year.”
On the rise
While Martin got off to such a strong start in camp last year that he appeared to be a shoo-in to be an opening-day starter, it was Barnes who went from being cut on the final roster reduction at the end of camp, to the practice squad, to the 53-man roster before the opener. Then he went on to be the only undrafted rookie free agent defensive player to start 10 or more games last season, finishing with 91 tackles and persevering not just through COVID-10 but also a broken thumb that required him to play in a cast.
“Obviously we want to take that experience and build on that and try to make it where we’re getting better,” Olivadotti said. “If you look at everything that we did, we did some good things, and we got some stuff to improve. Each guy has one or two things that they know they have to get better at, and that’s basically what our approach is right now.”
Player to watch
As a 2018 third-round pick, Burks should be more than just a special teams contributor at this point. But after three star-crossed, often injury-plagued seasons, he has yet to make a meaningful impact. The coaches even experimented with him as an outside linebacker late last season. But Burks’ three seasons in Green Bay were also Pettine’s three seasons, and perhaps Burks will benefit from the clean slate he’ll have with Barry—even after playing for Olivadotti already.
“The great thing is every year is different,” Olivadotti said. “This is a guy that’s played football for us and has contributed. I look forward to working with him again. Every year is a new year, and guys are going to grow and guys are going to mature differently. And OB is a prime candidate for a lot of different things because he works so extremely hard
Who will start?
There aren’t many positions on the 2021 Packers roster — well, other than that pesky uncertainty at quarterback — where the starting jobs are truly open for competition, and Campbell’s addition makes for an intriguing wrinkle. As much as it might be a young man’s game, Campbell isn’t that old (28), but he has a ton of experience (75 career games) and familiarity with head coach Matt LaFleur (who was an assistant for Campbell’s first two seasons in Atlanta). He also helped his chances by signing in June and getting into the defensive playbook before camp arrives.
“That’s probably the biggest thing, honestly, being able to get in here, talk with the coaches and really pick their brains and try to get some information from them before we have to report back for training camp,” Campbell said. “I didn’t want to come into training camp not having any type of football in me, other than last season. It (was) really good getting out on the field, getting back into a playbook.”