Training camp injuries are a common occurrence in the NFL. In most cases, they come from non-contact drills. For inside linebacker Jake Ryan that was the case this past week. While trying to track down wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown in a passing drill, Ryan went down in pain, grabbing his knee. The worse thoughts became reality when it was reported that he suffered a torn ACL and will miss this season. With Ryan out, the Packers need to decide what they will do to replace him. The Packer are now putting together a plan to replace the injured Jake Ryan.
Losing a starter, on offense, defense, or even special teams, is never a problem an NFL wants to deal with. But as odd as it sounds, losing one so early might be the best time to do so. This will allow Mike McCarthy, Mike Pettine, the rest of the defensive staff, and especially Brian Gutekunst and his staff some time to figure out what the best action will be to replace Jake Ryan. Although Ryan isn’t at the same level as Clay Matthews, a proven playmaker, he was still expected to contribute to this defense this season.
Ryan would have been entering his fourth season as a professional. The former University of Michigan product played in 15 games last season opposite fellow linebacker Blake Martinez. In those 15 games, he collected 52 total tackles, forced one fumble, and recovered another. For his three-year career, he has 144 total tackles.
Although not a playmaker and not the tackling machine Martinez was last season, Ryan was a big part of the Packers inside linebackers group. He was more of the thumper between him and Martinez, with being 6’2” and 240 lbs.. If you were going to compare Jake Ryan to a Packer from the past, a good comparison would be AJ Hawk. Not a player maker, but a suitable player to fill the other inside linebacker position and in most cases, available.
Pettine and the rest of the defensive staff will need to replace the reliable Jake Ryan. The most obvious choice to replace Ryan is rookie Oren Burks. Burks, a rookie out of Vanderbilt, was selected in the third round by the Packers this past spring. Burks has an interesting background coming from Vanderbilt.
He started his career as a safety, then became a hybrid safety/linebacker, and finally, ended up as a linebacker for Vanderbilt. The Packers brought Burks in largely due to his background as a cover guy. He is built like a linebacker, 6’3” 233 lbs., but has the range and skill of a safety. Burks was expected to fill the spot that Morgan Burnett had last season. That position was a safety playing as a linebacker in the nickel and dime packages. But now with Jake Ryan out, Burks will be expected to not only fill that role, but also be the linebacker to Martinez in their base defense.
Pettine might still play a safety at linebacker at times. Last season, Josh Jones also spent some time there, along with Burnett. Jones could still see time there this season, but it might be limited. Along with Jake Ryan suffering an injury, safety Kentrell Brice was also injured in the same practice. It appears that Brice’s injury isn’t as severe as Ryan’s but how much time he misses is up in the air. That will leave Jones spending most of his time at safety opposite of Ha Ha Clinton Dix.
Pettine has been experimenting with playing cornerback Quinten Rollins at linebacker in the dime package. It is a curious move, since Rollins isn’t as big as Jones is. Also, Rollins has battled injuries throughout his short career, which leads to questions on how he would handle the physical play at linebacker. For Rollins, who entered camp on the bubble to make the roster, it is a plus. The more positions he can play the better his chance is in making the roster.
There is a strong possibility that Gutekunst and McCarthy will allow some time to see what Burks can do before looking outside for help. If Burks looks like he can’t handle the load, they might look at free agency. Right now, the best inside linebacker available on the free agent market is NaVorro Bowman. Bowman split time with the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders last season. Combined for both teams, he had 127 total tackles, one and half sacks, and one interception. Gutekunst could also wait until the final cut down this training camp to look for help from other teams.
For now, the job is Burks to lose. Packers fans should be intrigued to see what Burks can do. While Ryan wasn’t afraid of mixing it up with lineman, he had limited athletic ability. He did struggle in coverage, which Burks could excel at. Burks reminds us, with the athletic ability he has, of former Packers inside linebacker Nick Barnett.
Losing a starter is never a positive, but Burks might bring something new to the Packers defense. Jake Ryan was steady, but had his limits. Packers fans know, when it comes to the Packers defense, something new might be better.