Packers 2018 Recap: Linebackers

Kyler Fackrell  was one of the lone bright spots at linebacker in 2018.

Kyler Fackrell was one of the lone bright spots at linebacker in 2018.

Linebackers are the engine that makes a 3-4 defense run. Both on the edge and off the ball, linebackers make the whole scheme go, even if Mike Pettine’s version of the defense is mostly sub packages.

Perhaps that explains why the Packers’ defenses have felt very limited for the last few years. This season, like many in recent memory, the Packers’ linebacking group was, at best, adequate. They were unlikely to lose the Packers any games but unlikely to win them any either.

That’s troubling, considering both the draft capital and financial resources devoted to this position group. It’s not entirely without its promising youngsters, but this group could use a serious overhaul this offseason.

Kyler Fackrell

  • 42 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss

  • 623 snaps (58.55%)

Expectations coming into the season: High
Expectations were: Exceeded

2016 analysis: Did not meet low expectations
2017 analysis: Did not meet high expectations

Analysis: Fackrell surprises in 2018

For most of Kyler Fackrell’s career to date, it’s been more common to have to explain why he wasn’t necessarily quite as bad as he seemed. In 2018, it’s exactly the opposite.

To be sure, Fackrell’s 10.5 sack season should absolutely be celebrated. He was one of the few bright spots on a team desperately in need of pass rush help. But his 2018 season was hardly the stat producing wonder it may look like at first glance.

Consider: outside of the Buffalo game, Fackrell had just one sack and one tackle for a loss in the first eight games of the 2018 season. And even within his three-sack Buffalo effort, his sacks may not have been entirely what they seem. It’s not clear if he even touched Bills quarterback Josh Allen on one of his three takedowns.

But Fackrell did improve down the stretch and his stats matched his ascension to the starting lineup. He contributed more regular pressure to the passer and a strong effort against the run, even if he still does have some limitations in that area. His three sack effort against Seattle was legit, even if it didn’t ultimately turn the tide.

Adjusted for quality, Fackrell’s stats likely more closely resemble those of a rotational rusher than a true lead sack master. But given what we’ve seen from Fackrell over the course of his career, that’s just fine.

Blake Martinez

  • 144 tackles, 5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss

  • 1,049 snaps (98.59%)

Expectations coming into the season: High
Expectations were: Met

2016 analysis: Did not meet high expectations
2017 analysis: Exceeded moderate expectations

Analysis: Big plays still evade high performing Martinez

Blake Martinez was almost exactly the same in 2018 as he was in 2017. That’s both a compliment and a criticism.

After tying for the league lead with 142 tackles in 2017 (along with 10 tackles for loss), Martinez recorded 144 in 2018 (again contributing 10 tackles for loss). In 2017, Martinez played just over 93% of the Packers’ defensive snaps. In 2018, he slightly increased that total to 98.59%. The most significant difference between 2017 and 2018 was Martinez’s sack total. After recording just one in 2017, Martinez collected five sacks on a bevy of delayed blitzes by defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

Those sacks were about the only splash plays Martinez contributed in 2018. Despite being on the field almost constantly, Martinez never seems to get his hands on the ball in a meaningful way. He’s managed to force just three turnovers in his three seasons. Even the notoriously turnover-averse A.J. Hawk produced five in the same stretch.

It’s probably nit-picking, but it seems like Martinez is capable of more. He’s performing admirably in every area of his play except this one. Even if he could force one or two turnovers a season, it could go a long way towards propelling Martinez (and by extension, the Packers’ defense) into elite company.

Antonio Morrison

  • 48 tackles, 1 sack, 5 tackles for loss

  • 299 snaps (28.1%)

Expectations coming into the season: Low
Expectations were:

Analysis: Morrison fills in for Jake Ryan just fine

From the moment he arrived in Green Bay last summer via a rare player-for-player trade, Antonio Morrison’s role was clear: he had to be Jake Ryan. We said as much in Episode 96 of Blue 58.

“Morrison not coming to the roster to fill in for Oren Burks while he works back from injury, which isn’t expected to be a very long time anyway,” we said. “Morrison is in Green Bay to be Jake Ryan, a guy that's going to come on the field on first and second down to play hard against the run.”

Morrison performed exactly as expected. He played hard against the run, hitting whatever came his way with reckless abandon. He struggled in pass coverage when asked to do so and didn’t offer much in terms of sideline-to-sideline pursuit, but that has never been his game. To the extent that his weaknesses were exposed, it was only because he was in a position for them to be exposed. Had Oren Burks come along as expected, that may not have been the case.

As it was, Morrison more than adequately met the low expectations we had for him. Asking for more would have been the real problem.

Reggie Gilbert

  • 38 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss

  • 486 snaps (45.68%)

Expectations coming into the season: High
Expectations were: Not met

2017 analysis: Met low expectations

Analysis: Gilbert fails to reward the Packers’ faith

Rightly or wrongly, a lot was riding on Gilbert in 2018. The Packers added just one pass rusher of note during the 2018 offseason – seventh-round pick Kendall Donnerson – and seemed content to go into the 2018 season with just Fackrell and Gilbert behind starters Nick Perry and Clay Matthews.

That proved to be a mistake. Gilbert didn’t build off a strong finish to 2017 and only produced 2.5 sacks in 16 games despite playing more than 45% of the team’s snaps. Whatever confidence the Packers seemed to have in Gilbert was apparently misplaced.

Nick Perry

  • 24 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 tackles for loss

  • 302 snaps (28.38%)

Expectations coming into the season: High
Expectations were: Not met

2016 analysis: Met high expectations
2017 analysis: Did not meet high expectations

Analysis: Perry underwhelms — again

There’s little to say about Nick Perry that hasn’t been written again and again. Other than his breakout (or aberrant?) 2016 season, Perry has been too injured and too unproductive to merit much positive press.

Of course, that 2016 season netted Perry a large contract, one that our own Gary Zilavy warned against. “In five years with the Packers,” he wrote after the 2016 season, “Perry has appeared in 60 of the team’s 80 regular season contests. Essentially, he plays in three of every four games. All told, Perry is a risky proposition to invest in going forward.”

He was right. Perry has been available for just 21 of 32 regular season games since he signed, appearing even more irregularly than he did before the extension. But even when he has been healthy, he hasn’t done much, including his 1.5 sack effort in nine games last season.

Given that the Packers have shown a very thorough disinterest in signing pass rushers other than Perry, it’s not clear how else this could have played out. Perry was undeniably good in 2016 and the Packers needed pass rushers, but he’s done little since then. That plain fact is why he’s a likely cut candidate this offseason.

Oren Burks

  • 24 tackles

  • 122 snaps (11.47%)

Expectations coming into the season: Moderate
Expectations were:
Not met

Analysis: Burks can’t find the field as a rookie

The unlikely heart of the 2018 Packers’ draft class, Oren Burks projected as the kind of linebacker the Packers haven’t had in some time. While both Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan have their own merits, neither possesses the kind of sideline-to-sideline athleticism Burks does. If he could find a role, Burks figured to provide athleticism and coverage ability the middle of the Packers’ defense had been sorely lacking.

But he never did find a role. Burks’ playing time in 2018 was a bit of a roller coaster: a big climb followed by a sharp drop. Inactive for the first two games of the season with a shoulder injury, Burks got his feet wet with eight snaps against Washington before playing close to starter’s reps in the next three games. However, after the Packers’ bye week, Burks never played more than 15 snaps on defense, ending his rookie campaign as little more than a tantalizing “what if.”