The Green Bay Packers went 13-3 last season, won the NFC North and reached the NFC Championship Game. San Francisco routed the Packers, though, 37-20, in the conference title game and Green Bay enters the 2020 season with several questions.
The Packers are hoping to begin training camp in late July.
Between now and the start of camp, I will count down the ‘30 Most Important Packers’ heading into the 2020 campaign.
Inside linebacker Christian Kirksey checks in at No. 11. The other players that have been revealed in the top-30 are listed at the bottom of the story.
No. 11 ILB, Christian Kirksey
Last season: Kirksey played in just two games in 2019, before suffering a torn pectoral tendon that required season-ending surgery. That marked the second straight year Kirksey finished the season on the injured reserve list
The Browns had seen enough and released Kirksey on March 10. The Packers then gave Kirksey a two-year, $16 million deal.
Kirksey was due to make $7.75 million in base salary this season and $8.25 million in 2021 in Cleveland.
Career to date: Kirksey, who turns 28 before the season, was a third-round draft choice by Cleveland in 2014 and played his first six years with the Browns. The first two of those seasons, current Green Bay defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was Cleveland’s head coach.
Kirksey was a part-time starter his first two years, then had a breakout 2016 campaign when he notched 148 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three passes defended.
“Probably the most improved player on our team, in my opinion, is Kirko,” then-Browns coach Hue Jackson said of Kirksey back in 2016. “He has accepted the challenge of playing extremely physical and tough. He has done that.
“He is a three-down linebacker. He can play on first, second and third down. He runs, and he has made some explosive plays. He needs to continue to do so, and I think he will.”
Kirksey signed a four-year, $38 million contract extension in May 2017, that included $20 million in guaranteed money and a $6 million signing bonus. Kirksey then went out and had another terrific year in 2017, posting 138 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 2.5 passes defended.
Kirksey’s career began heading south in 2018, though, when he played in just seven games before going on the injured reserve list with a hamstring injury. After another injury-filled season in 2019, Kirksey was shown the door.
Outlook: Kirksey takes over for Blake Martinez, who ranked second in the NFL with 512 tackles over the last four years, then left in free agency.
Kirksey ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds before the 2014 NFL Draft. Martinez’s 40-yard dash time was 4.71 seconds at the 2016 NFL Combine.
If Kirksey is healthy, the Packers hope he can give them the type of speedy linebacker with coverage skills that they’ve lacked for more than a decade. The key for Kirksey, though, will be staying on the field.
“Individually, I want to get back to playing great football. I think that signing this two-year deal and re-establishing myself and getting my name back out there and letting people know Christian Kirksey is back, Christian Kirksey is a great linebacker in this league. That’s what I’m shooting for. I have an individual goal that I want to achieve, and that’s to be the best linebacker in the league. For those who may have slept on me or said, ‘Oh, he’s injury-prone’ or ‘He’s not the same player he used to be,’ I’m here to prove them wrong and prove to myself that I’ve still got what it takes to be one of the best linebackers in the league. That’s the individual chip that’s on my shoulder.” — Kirksey on what he hopes to prove in 2020
“We’re very excited about the signing. Just going through the medical part of it and talking to our people, they didn’t think (the injuries) were anything that was long term. I mean, he’s never been a guy that’s been injury prone, so obviously that’s a concern when you see the amount of time that he’s missed, but overall I just think it was a great signing for us for a lot of reasons. We’re not just bringing a really good player into the room, I mean, this is a guy who has great leadership ability. He already has a head start on learning the system with him being drafted, obviously when I was in Cleveland. So certainly, it’s a risk when you look at it, but certainly, it was a risk that we were more than willing to take. So, as I said, we’re excited about it.” —Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine on signing Kirksey
“Really, really fortunate to get a guy, especially considering the circumstances of this offseason, to get a guy that’s been in this system in Christian Kirksey. I’ve been super impressed with him. You can tell he’s a pro. He knows what’s going on already and shoots, we’ve only been meeting for a couple of weeks. It’ll be fun to get him and get all these guys back in the building and just work on that camaraderie.” —Packers coach Matt LaFleur on Kirksey
“What I bring to the table, I would like to bring versatility to the defense. Whether it’s the passing game or the run game, playing that ‘Will’ position in Cleveland, I traveled a lot, I played all in space for the majority of the time so I think I bring versatility to where maybe I match on a tight end, not necessarily bring another linebacker on the field. I just bring things like that.
“Also, I bring a lot of leadership to the team. I’ve seen a lot – played in a different scheme, I think I played in four different schemes in six years. So that goes to show you that I’ve pretty much seen it all. So, I definitely bring that leadership to the younger guys.” — Kirksey on what he’ll bring to the defense