Is ILB a position of need? This seems to be the one question Packer fans continue to debate. Now that Josh Jones has requested a trade, it spices up the topic even a little more. Green Bay has had many opportunities to address the position whether through the draft or free agency. However, they continue to seem content. Do they feel confident in what they have on the roster? Do they not value the ILB position? Or is it both?
First, let’s point out that Josh Jones was not the savior at ILB. He would have been a rotational player at best. I understand he has shown promise in a few games and down the stretch last year, but the Packers have made it clear they are no longer asking players to play out of position. Asking Jones to play an entire year and grasp the game as a backer is a big task considering he could not do it at his natural position. Pettine probably would have used Jones, and he may have been productive. The key to this all was Jones was not the answer. The Packers and Mike Pettine were not comfortable with the ILB room because of Josh Jones. They can get another rotational player.
Two keys to the answer were free agency and the draft. This year Brian Gutekunst and the Packers made a huge splash in free agency. They saw the issues on defense, and I am sure Pettine voiced his opinion on certain players and situations. Gutekunst answered with three huge defensive signings which consisted of no ILBs. All of the draft experts and a lot of fans saw this as a sign that the Packers had their eye on a linebacker in the draft. As the draft comes and goes, the Packers waited until the seventh round to take an ILB. A seventh round pick is not really considered to be addressing the situation.
This tells me two things. Mike Pettine and the Packers front office do not value ILB as a high need, and they are comfortable with their ILB group. I believe both of these things are related. I agree with not valuing the ILB position as a high need above other positions for a few reasons. Today’s NFL is a passing league. Defenses need to have a strong defensive line and a solid secondary to be successful. The coverage is important, but not as important as the pass rush. Both of those areas were addressed in free agency and the draft.
I also believe the ILB position is changing. It takes a special athlete to play every down with all of the tasks asked of them. They have to be big and strong enough to stop the run and take on linemen, agile and fast enough to cover freak athletes, and smart enough to read multiple keys and call the plays and make the adjustments. We have seen the players that play the hybrid position between defensive line and linebacker, but the linebacker position is becoming a hybrid itself. Rarely teams find the answer for an every-down player at ILB. Pettine likes to answer that with playing more defensive backs and walking a safety into the box if needed with one true backer.
This, in turn, correlates to being comfortable with the ILB group. Blake Martinez has been the mainstay there and rightfully so. He is not the new breed of ILB; however, he does what is asked of him at a high rate. Oren Burks is a second-year player to watch out for as well. He is more of the cover backer that could see a big jump in playing time his second year in the league. Both Martinez and Burks are too smart high IQ football guys which is what you need at the center of your defense.
Behind those two you have James Crawford and Ty Summers. Crawford is another athletic second-year player that may see an increase in playing time. He was a long shot to make the roster as an undrafted free agent, but he played in all 16 games and was voted special teams captain the last game of the year. Ty Summers was the Packers seventh round pick and former high school quarterback. These four players show me a trend of what the Packers are currently looking for at ILB.
Why waste cap space or a high pick on a player that may not fit what the position molds into in a few years? The Packers are choosing the route of solid smart play at ILB, rotational athletic backers, and the occasional use of safeties. They are doing this while upgrading positions that are more important to compete against the offenses of today’s NFL. The belief is that while doing all of this, it makes your ILBs better. You surround your ILBs with better players and they aren’t asked to do things they are not capable of doing. While this may not be the flashy thing to do, I believe, for the time being, it is the most efficient.