The Green Bay Packers seemed to have a fairly straightforward decision to make about their inside linebacker personnel heading into the 2020 season.
With fifth-round rookie Kamal Martin beginning the season on injured reserve, the Packers were left with just two options on their active roster to fill the No. 2 starting role alongside newcomer Christian Kirksey for their season opener in Minnesota. Considering one of those two candidates was Ty Summers, a 2019 seventh-round pick who played exclusively on special teams as a rookie, the job seemed destined to fall to third-year linebacker Oren Burks.
Instead, the Packers took a bolder approach and gave the starting nod to Krys Barnes, an undrafted rookie who had been signed from the practice squad less than 24 hours earlier and had missed the team’s initial 53-man roster cut.
“He did an outstanding job,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said Sunday of Barnes, who tallied a second-most seven tackles with two for a loss in his NFL debut against the Vikings. “There was one play in particular where they tried to run a screen to Dalvin Cook, who is one of the top backs in the league, and Krys did just an unbelievable job of diagnosing that play and making that tackle. And that was a big play because there was a lot of green out there for Dalvin to go if he doesn’t secure that tackle.”
What a play by Krys Barnes! A Packers linebacker who can click and close?! pic.twitter.com/I3P8eVSIjF
— Joe Kipp (@joepkipp) September 13, 2020
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Barnes Stayed Active in Debut for Packers
Barnes sniffed out the screen pass from quarterback Kirk Cousins to Cook on a 2nd-and-6 situation late in the third quarter, taking down the dynamic running back for a loss of two yards after the Vikings had gained a combined 39 of their last three plays. The Packers defense then forced another two incompletions from Cousins and forced the Vikings to turn it over on downs, giving the ball back to their offense with a 12-point lead.
The rookie out of UCLA also jammed up another Vikings rusher, Alexander Mattison, for a single-yard loss earlier in the third quarter. He played a total of 15 snaps on defense (29%) and another eight snaps on special teams (31%) and finished as one of the Packers’ highest-graded defensive player in Week 1, according to metrics from Pro Football Focus.
Burks to Compete With Barnes for Playing Time?
Barnes’ strong performance in his NFL debut would seem to validate the Packers’ decision to sign him to an active-roster contract rather than make him a temporary promotion.
The Packers could have taken advantage of a new NFL rule and included Barnes as one of two players they are allowed to call up from the practice squad to their game-day roster. Players who are brought up under the rule automatically revert back to the practice squad following the game and can be promoted no more than twice in a single season without signing a 53-man roster contract. Those players were tight end John Lovett and rookie outside linebacker Tipa Galeai for the Packers in Sunday’s opener against the Vikings.
But Barnes, now a full-fledged member of the active roster, doesn’t have to worry anymore about trying to impress the coaching staff from the practice squad. His next challenge will be carving out a regular role in the defense with Burks, a 2018 third-round pick, and Summers in place to challenge him for weekly playing time.
Man, Oren Burks can't get on the field over a rookie UDFA who didn't make the initial 53-man roster. That's tough.
— Zach Kruse (@zachkruse2) September 13, 2020
Expectations have been high for Burks, who returned in excellent shape this summer from a pectoral injury that cost him four games in 2019 and hampered his production, but the Packers seemed higher on the rookie Martin as a No. 2 starter before he landed on injured reserve. Burks played just three defensive snaps against the Vikings and got the bulk of his work on special teams (69% of snaps).
As for Summers, the second-year linebacker still hasn’t taken a defensive snap for the Packers and will have to work even harder to earn his shot with Barnes seemingly above him on the depth chart. He could slide as far as the No. 5 inside linebacker once Martin returns to action.