2020 Season in Review - Linebackers
Another day, another position! In our seventh instalment of reviewing every player at every position, we turn our attentions to the linebackers. How did they fair in 2020?
Za’Darius Smith got more recognition for his 2020 season than that of 2019, but in actuality he was probably sightly more effective in 2019 than he was this past year. Of course, that’s all relative, Smith was still good in 2020 and earned some of honours that he probably should have received the year before – Pro Bowl starter, 2nd Team All-Pro (AP and Pro Football Journal) and PFWA All-NFC.
Smith played and started in all 16 games and notched up 12.5 sacks (which was tied 4th in the NFL). That sack total included a sack in 10 different games – tied for the most in Packers history (with Tim Harris who achieved this mark twice). 3 of the sacks came in a single game against Atlanta in week 4, a game in which he also had 5 QB hits. Smith had 51 tackles (36 solo), including 12 tackles for loss. He also had a career high 4 forced fumbles. 2 fumble recoveries, 23 QB hits, 51 QB pressures and 2 passes defensed. He was also responsible for 6 accepted penalties (2 offside, 1 unnecessary roughness, 1 roughing the passer, 1 encroachment, 1 holding)
Smith is a team leader and much more than a pass rusher, but his numbers getting after the quarterback are hard to ignore. His 26 sacks in 2 seasons for Green Bay are the most that any player has had in first 2 years with the team (since stats became official in 1982), surpassing Clay Matthews’ 23.5 (2009-10) and in the process Smith also became the first Packer to have back to back seasons with 10+ sacks since Matthews. Those 26 sacks also place Smith in a tie for 13th place in Packers history (again since sacks became official in 1982).
There’s no reason that we shouldn’t expect Smith to be very good again in 2021. Without question, he has been one of best unrestricted free agent pick-ups that the Packers have had (alongside the likes of Reggie White and Charles Woodson). Smith carries a large salary cap hit ($22m) into the upcoming season – which means it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Packers try to restructure his deal. At the very least, they may look to convert his roster bonus (due in March) and some of his base salary to signing bonus – in doing so, they could create as much as $7.38m in 2021 salary cap space.
After an excellent 2019, Preston Smith’s 2020 didn’t quite live up to the hype or expectation that last year created. Don’t get us wrong, this wasn’t a terrible year by any means, but he didn’t make the impact plays that would be expected of a player with his salary cap hit. Of course, Smith wasn’t helped by being called upon to drop into coverage on what seemed like key pass rushing downs.
In 2020, Smith played in 16 games, starting in 13. He notched up just 4.0 sacks, 26 QB pressures and 11 QB hits. He also had 42 tackles (29 solos), 7 tackles for a loss and 3 passes defensed. Perhaps Smith’s biggest play of the season was his only fumble recovery – a 14 yard return for a touchdown against the Bears.
Preston Smith is being pushed hard by Rashan Gary and given the likely salary cap challenges in the off-season, it’s quite possible that Smith ends up being a salary cap casualty before the new league season starts (in March). The Packers could save $8m in 2021 cap charges by releasing Smith in this timescale.
In 2020, Rashan Gary, the Packers 1st round pick in 2019, started to demonstrate why Green Bay saw him worthy of the 12th overall pick. There is still a way to go – Gary is far from being the finished product – but that is probably what makes it more exciting… he’s good, but there’s still the potential for much more to come. Gary is a strong, physical player with outstanding speed for his size and he’s just beginning to learn how to make best use of his physical traits.
In 2020, Gary played in 15 games (he was inactive for the other), with 4 starts – and played in nearly twice as many snaps as he did in 2019. In those 15 games, he notched up 5 sacks, 39 pressures and 11 QB hits. Gary also had 34 tackles (19 solo), including 5 tackles for a loss, had 1 pass defensed and recovered 1 fumble.
In 2021 it would be no surprise to see Gary usurp Preston Smith and become the full-time starter. Let’s hope that his progression in 2020 is just the start.
The Packers brought Ramsey back to compete for a roster spot alongside the likes of Jonathan Garvin, Greg Roberts, and Tim Williams – and Ramsey came through the competition to win a place on the final 53. His ability to play special teams clearly helped him.
In 2020, Ramsey played in 12 games (he was inactive for the other 4) making his biggest contributions on special teams. On defense, he ended the season having made 2 tackles (1 solo) – adding 9 tackles (4 solo) to his total on special teams.
Ramsey is now an exclusive rights free agent who is likely to be re-signed by the Packers and be back to compete again.
It was a mild surprise that Jonathan Garvin fell to the 7th round in the 2020 draft, so when the Packers selected him with the 242nd overall pick they got a bonus with a player who has some good pass rushing skills. Garvin signed a 4yr/$3.374m rookie contract on 26th May.
In 2020, Garvin saw very limited action in the 8 games that he played (0 starts), notching up 5 tackles (2 solo). We should expect to see more of Garvin in 2021 as he gets more opportunities.
An exciting player off the edge in college, not dissimilar to Jonathan Garvin, it was a little bit of a surprise (just like with Garvin) when Galeai dropped in the draft and finally wasn’t selected at all. The Packers signed him immediately afterwards as an undrafted free agent – giving him a shot at making the roster, competing with the likes of Ramsey, Garvin, and Tim Williams.
Galeai was waived at the final roster cutdown on 5th September and the signed to the Packers Practice Squad the following day. He was elevated to the active roster on one occasion – for the season opener against Minnesota, playing on 9 defensive snaps. Galeai spent the remainder of the season on the Practice Squad.
Galeai was signed to a new contract on 25th January 2021, so we should expect to see him competing for a roster spot again this year.
Scott played DE in college and sometimes still listed at DE but in reality, in the pros, he’s an OLB due to his size-speed combination. Despite 9 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss in his senior year at SMU he wasn’t drafted, but the Packers were quick to snap Scott up as an undrafted free agent at the end of April. He remained on the off-season roster until the final cutdown day (5th September) when he was waived.
The Packers signed Scott to the Practice Squad the following day. In mid-December he was placed on the Injured Reserve-Practice Squad list (he was replaced by Brian Price who was signed the same day). Scott ended the season on the Injured Reserve-Practice Squad list and never saw any active roster time during the 2020 season.
Scott was signed to a new contract on 26th January 2021, so we should expect to see him competing for a roster spot again this year.
No Longer With the Team
Roberts went undrafted in 2019 and was signed by the Packers shortly afterwards. Unfortunately, he suffered an injury in camp and was placed on the physically unable to perform list on 22nd July – remaining there for the whole 2019 season.
Roberts was activated from the PUP list on 3rd September but was waived 2 days later at the final cutdown to the 53 man roster. The Packers signed him to the Practice Squad the following day (6th September) but was released on 22nd September.
Roberts was later signed by the Panthers to their Practice Squad.
Williams played 1 game for the Packers in 2019 as well as spending time on the team’s Practice Squad. Back in January 2020, the Packers signed him to a reserve/futures contract for the 2020 season which put him in competition with the likes of Randy Ramsey and Jonathan Garvin for one of the final outside linebacker spots on the depth chart. Williams lost out and was waived at the final cutdown on 5th September.
Williams subsequently spent two weeks on the Seahawks Practice Squad but didn’t stick. He has been signed to a contract for the 2021 season by the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL.
Jamal Davis II
Davis played 3 games for the Miami Dolphins in 2019 and when they waived him in April, the Packers picked him up. Sometimes listed as a DE, Davis is really an OLB and unfortunately for him, he had stiff competition for a roster spot at OLB in Green Bay from the very start - and with a truncated training camp and no pre-season his chances pretty much disappeared. Davis was waived by the Packers in the second week of August and was later signed and released from the Tennessee Titans Practice Squad. In December, he was signed and released from the Browns Practice Squad. It would be no surprise to see Davis on a team’s roster in the coming off-season.
If there was an award for Packers' Rookie of the Year, Krys Barnes would win it after an outstanding 2020 season. He went unselected in the 2020 draft due to being slightly undersized (6-1, 225) and his perceived slight lack of athletic ability – how wrong the scouts turned out to be. The Packers signed Barnes as an undrafted free agent immediately after the draft, with a view to him making a run at a reserve spot at inside linebacker.
Barnes was waived at the final cutdown to the 53 man roster, but the Packers immediately signed him to their Practice Squad, and he was quickly promoted to the active roster (12th September) – in essence taking the roster spot vacated by Kamal Martin when he was placed on Injured Reserve. Barnes would remain on the active roster for the remainder of the season, other than the 4 weeks that he would spend on the COVID-19 reserve list.
Barnes played in 13 Regular Season games, starting 10 games and being in on 421 snaps – more snaps than any other Packers rookie in 2020. He notched up 78 tackles, including 47 solo, with 5 tackles for a loss and a sack and a QB hit. His tackle total included 14 in a single game against the Bears in week 17. Barnes also made one of Packers biggest defensive plays of the season when he forced a fumble by QB Teddy Bridgewater at the goal line in the Panthers game.
How trusted was he by Mike Pettine and the defensive coaching staff? Very – halfway through the season he picked up ownership of the defensive communication helmet, calling the plays on defense. All of the play and this level of trust earned Barnes a spot on Pro Football Journal’s 1st Team All-Rookie team.
Barnes is an all-round inside linebacker. He steps up to play the run and showed good skills in pass coverage. Hopefully Barnes can parlay all of the promise of his rookie season into a long career at inside linebacker for the Packers. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, let’s firstly just hope for solid progression in 2021.
Martin was the Packers 5th round pick (175th overall) in the 2020 draft, signing a 4 yr/$3.56m rookie contract. He was a good player at the University of Minnesota who suffered through niggling injuries and he came to Green Bay trying to put those behind him.
Having made the final 53 man roster, Martin was placed on Injured Reserve on 7th September – by making the 53 man roster before going on IR, it meant that he was able to return during 2020. And so he did when he was activated on 24th October. Martin also missed a week later in the season when he was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list following a close contact. Martin played in 10 games (6 starts), notching up 23 tackles (17 solo), including 3 tackles for a loss and had 1 sack and a QB hit. On special teams he made 1 assisted tackle.
Martin is a good all-round inside linebacker who plays the run well and will only get better in pass coverage. His rookie season bodes well for the future – it will be interesting to see his progression in 2021.
Just like in 2019, Summers was again solid this past year without being spectacular. He played in 16 games, with 1 start (against Atlanta in week 4). On defense, Summers notched up 27 tackles (19 solo) and had 1 pass defensed. On special teams he had 12 tackles, including 8 solo.
Summers is a solid inside linebacker who has become a big contributor on special teams. He appears to lack the ideal speed that you would like from the inside, but he is a hard-working, all-out competitor. In 2021, he’ll again go into camp and the pre-season in a battle to win a reserve spot at inside linebacker.
Through 3 years, Oren Burks hasn’t yet lived up to what the Packers hoped that they were getting in their 2018 3rd round pick. Burks is a speedy athlete who hasn’t made the breakthrough to earn a starting spot at inside linebacker, indeed the Packers tried him at outside linebacker for a while this past year.
In 2020, Burks played in all 16 games (0 starts) with the majority of his action coming on special teams, where had 10 tackles (6 solo) and forced 1 fumble. In his limited action on defense, Burks notched up 11 tackles (8 solo), including 1 tackle for a loss and 1 forced fumble.
Burks is going to be on the cusp of a roster spot in 2021, it remains to be seen whether the Packers give him the last year on his contract to finally make a breakthrough.
James Burgess had spent 4 years bouncing around the NFL, having had spells (including camp and Practice Squad) with 7 different teams before the Packers signed him off the Atlanta Falcons Practice Squad on 24th October. He was active with the Packers for about a month before being placed on Injured Reserve with a hamstring injury. He remained on Injured Reserve for the rest of the season. In his month of being active, Burgess played in 4 games, with 0 starts, notching up 3 tackles (3 solo) on special teams.
Burgess was designated to return from Injured Reserve in the week leading up to the NFC Championship Game meaning that he could have been activated for the Super Bowl if the Packers had made it.
Burgess is now an unrestricted free agent and therefore may not be back with the team in 2021.
De’Jon “Scoota” Harris
Scoota Harris was seen predominantly as a run-stuffing, early down type linebacker at Arkansas who didn’t do too much in coverage – however, the Patriots saw enough in him to give him a high level of guarantees when they signed Harris as an undrafted free agent. But he didn’t make the roster with New England, being released at the final cutdown.
Liking what they saw in Harris, the Packers quickly signed him to their Practice Squad (on 9th September). The Packers elevated Harris to the active roster twice during the 2020 season – for the games in week 4 and week 12. These were the only 2 games (0 starts) in which he played, spending the remainder of his time on the Practice Squad.
Harris was signed to a new contract on 25th January 2021, so we should expect to see him competing for a roster spot again this year.
Wilborn went unselected in the 2020 draft and was signed by the Falcons as an undrafted free agent immediately afterwards (29th April). He didn’t make Atlanta’s roster and after a short period on the Steelers Practice Squad he found himself without a place on an NFL roster for the remainder of 2020.
The Packers signed Wilborn to a reserve/futures contract on 8th January 2021. Wilborn could be a linebacker or safety (he played both in college) and therefore it's not beyond the realms of possibility that he will compete for a role in 2021 either as an inside linebacker or as a “box” safety in the Raven Greene type role. Either way, his chances of making the roster would appear to be slim.
No Longer With the Team
Having seen Blake Martinez leave in free agency, the Packers picked up Kirksey on a 2yr/$13m contract at the end of March. In picking up Kirksey, the Packers were getting an athletic player who can play the run and, very importantly, can cover. However, they were also taking a bit of a gamble since Kirksey’s pro career had been blighted by injuries.
Kirksey played in 11 games in 2020, all starts – missing the other 5 games when he was placed on Injured Reserve on 3rd October. At times Kirksey played well and made some significant plays but at other times he appeared to disappear from games as the Packers' defense struggled. Certainly it felt like he didn’t play consistently at the level that the Packers would have wanted given the size of the contract he signed.
Kirksey had 78 tackles (47 solo), including 2 tackles for a loss. He also notched up 2 interceptions (for 18 yards), 2 sacks, 4 passes defensed and 2 QB hits.
Given his 2020 performance, the team’s salary cap situation and the potential of Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin, the Packers elected to move on from Kirksey this off-season. In doing so, the Packers saved about $5.61m by cutting him prior to his roster bonus becoming due in March.
Bolton had an excellent camp and pre-season in 2019 before he tore an ACL in the third pre-season game which caused him to miss the whole of the 2019 season. Coming back in 2020, Bolton’s injury had not completely healed, and he was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list on 5th September. Bolton was subsequently released on 6th October.
Bolton was signed by the Houston Texans to their Practice Squad in November and the Texans also later signed him to a contract for the 2021 season.
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