Former Packers Linebacker Reaches New Deal With Panthers

Panthers Sign Kamal Martin

Getty Kamal Martin #49 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers celebrates a sack of Isaac Harker #14 of the Indiana State Sycamores in the second quarter at TCFBank Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Carolina’s calling for one of the Green Bay Packers’ recent draft picks.

The Carolina Panthers signed inside linebacker and former 2020 fifth-round pick Kamal Martin to fill the final spot on their practice squad, offering him a fresh start in another part of the NFC after he was somewhat surprisingly ousted from the Packers ahead of his second NFL season.

The signing announcement comes just one day after Martin visited the Panthers.

Martin was in the mix for a starting role with the Packers only a year ago before a knee injury caused him to miss the first five games of the 2020 season. While he also spent one game on the reserve/COVID-19 list, he still made a solid impression over his 10 games of action as a rookie, recording 17 solo tackles, three tackles for loss and his first career sack across 190 defensive snaps.

Unfortunately, Martin’s promising start in Green Bay didn’t carry over into his second year. After the Packers added veteran De’Vondre Campbell in the offseason, Martin slipped down the depth chart in training camp, losing preference to backups Oren Burks and Ty Summers in practice. The Packers did experiment with him at outside linebacker for a short while in an attempt to find another place for him, but he was ultimately released ahead of their second cutdown deadline on August 24.

Perhaps in Carolina, Martin will have an opportunity to earn his way back onto an active NFL roster.

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How Secure is Packers’ ILB Picture?

Part of the reason why Martin’s release came as such a surprise was the Packers’ general lack of depth at the inside linebacker position. They have a returning starter in Krys Barnes — who was an undrafted rookie gem for them in 2020 — and added a veteran in Campbell that can pick up the reps that Christian Kirksey left behind, but the rest of the position comes down to unproven or unimpressive pieces.

Burks and Summers both have the advantage of familiarity going for them as the only two inside linebackers with more than a year of experience with the Packers, but their value to the team is based more in special teams than defense. While each of them played more than three-fourths of special teams snaps in 2020, neither of them saw action on even 20% of snaps with the defense.

Beyond the two of them, the Packers also have sixth-round rookie Isaiah McDuffie to consider for a rotational role in 2021. He overcame a slow (and injured) start to camp and made a strong impression in the Packers’ final preseason game in which he recorded a team-high nine tackles and quite possibly locked up a roster spot for himself. It will take more than a flash of talent in the preseason, though, for McDuffie to become a meaningful contributor for the Packers defense.

Will Campbell Make an Impact?

The Packers didn’t have much success with their last veteran linebacker experiment. After choosing to let Blake Martinez walk in 2020 free agency, they took a chance on Kirksey in hopes that he could overcome two seasons of extensive injury history to prove them with an affordable missing piece for their defense. Instead, he spent five games on injured reserve and ended up playing on fewer than 50% of defensive snaps over the Packers’ final four games after losing his job to an undrafted rookie (Barnes).

Unlike Kirksey, though, Campbell has a strong track record of availability and far more production on his resume. He has missed just five games over his first five seasons in the NFL, all of them coming in 2016 during his rookie year with the Atlanta Falcons. Since then, Campbell has been a 16-game contributor in four consecutive seasons, averaging more than 100 tackles in each one and starting in all but four games.

The challenge for the Packers will be determining how to get the most out of Campbell. They likely won’t need such a high volume of tackles out of him as their second or complementary option to Barnes, but his size (6-foot-4, 232 pounds) and athleticism could supply them with an impactful new weapon for their run defense. And despite underwhelming coverage numbers in Atlanta and Arizona, the Packers believe his instincts can make truly make a difference.

“He’s a pretty good-looking specimen,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur told reporters on August 13 during camp. “He’s tall and long and he can cover. He’s got great instincts, first and foremost, which is tough to coach. But he’s really good in coverage as a zoning ‘backer, reading the quarterback’s eyes. When given the opportunities to pressure, he’s very slippery. He can get skinny and get around linemen. And he’s a great tackler.”

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