Packers Rookie Takes Over Starting Role for Veteran Defender

Barnes over Kirksey

Getty Inside linebacker Krys Barnes #51 of the Green Bay Packers forces quarterback Teddy Bridgewater #5 of the Carolina Panthers to fumble in the the second quarter of the game at Lambeau Field on December 19, 2020 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The future is now for the Green Bay Packers at the inside linebacker position, or so it would seem after Saturday’s 24-16 win over the Carolina Panthers.

The Packers adjusted their starting lineup for Week 15’s home win and rolled with rookie linebacker Krys Barnes as the primary signal-caller in all three of their opening defensive packages against the Panthers, giving him the green dot even when sharing the field with veteran Christian Kirksey.

Barnes also unquestionably made the bigger impact between the two ‘backers with six solo tackles, one TFL and a pivotal forced fumble against Teddy Bridgewater as the Panthers attempted a goal-line quarterback sneak. He played 31 snaps before an eye injury forced him to leave the game midway through the third quarter.

Comparably, Kirksey spent more time on the field (49 snaps) but failed to record a single defensive stop — or a play deemed successful for the defense — with six of his team-high nine tackles coming on plays that resulted in first downs for the Panthers. He also played just 42% of snaps in the first half and saw most of his action once Barnes exited.

“(Barnes) does such a great job of communicating everything that needs to go on out there,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said Sunday. “I think he sees plays very, very quickly. He’s able to process and diagnose, and there’s no hesitation in his game. Once he sees it, he goes. That was evident on the QB sneak. He heard the quarterbacks’ audible and he played the play and was able to make a helluva play, the play of the game.”

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Kirksey Losing Favor in Green Bay?

The Packers needed a replacement for the middle of their defense after allowing Blake Martinez to walk in last year’s free agency and locked down Kirksey for a bargain price at two years and $13 million last spring, but the writing could be on the wall for him in 2021 with not one but two promising rookies already looking up to NFL speed.

Barnes has been one of the most welcomed surprises of the 2020 season for the Packers with the undrafted rookie going from waived at the roster cutdown deadline to starting in Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings. As far as a three-down linebacker, he seems to check all the boxes with good instincts, smart decision-making and a sideline-to-sideline speed that Green Bay linebackers have been missing in recent years.

The Packers have also continued to work in fifth-round rookie Kamal Martin, who missed the first five games with a knee injury and spent another on the reserve/COVID-19 list as a high-risk close contact. While Sunday was only the fourth time in eight games he has played more than 20 snaps, his knack for disrupting plays and clogging run lanes remained evident with a pair of no-gain stuffs against Curtis Samuel and Mike Davis.

The numbers don’t exactly favor Kirksey when taking into account both production and snap count. The 28-year-old veteran linebacker has played 501 defensive snaps over nine games and tallied a team-high 70 tackles, but his tipped-pass interception against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11 stands as one of his few splash plays. Forget forced fumbles or sacks; Kirksey hasn’t even laid a hand on opposing quarterbacks this year or made one tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

Both Barnes (310 snaps — 59 tackles, four TFLs, one sack, one forced fumble) and Martin (166 snaps — three TFLs, one sack) have done more with less for the Packers. According to Pro Football Reference, the rookies have also missed fewer tackles as a duo (six) than Kirksey (eight).

If both rookies finish the year well, the Packers would have good reason to consider moving on from Kirksey in the upcoming offseason. Not only did he validate concerns about his ability to stay healthy, missing the better part of six games with a shoulder injury, but the Packers can also save about $6 million in cap space during a 2021 offseason where the league cap is expected to decrease significantly.


Barnes ‘Fine’ After Eye Injury

The only real downside to Barnes’ performance on Sunday was that he didn’t get to properly finish it, but the good news is the Packers weren’t overly concerned about his injury status looking ahead to Week 16’s matchup with the Tennessee Titans.

“There was a little bit of vision problems, but he’s fine,” LaFleur reassured on Sunday. “It sounds like he’s fine today. I don’t know if it was from getting poked in the eye or what, but it was a bad deal because he was playing really good football for us.”

The Packers will have to hope Barnes continues bringing his best as they prepare for one of their toughest rushing challenges of the year. How the Packers’ inside linebackers respond to Derrick Henry — who has amassed 1,679 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns — could also be useful when writing the blueprint for the 2021 season, especially if they are able to find success.

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