They say it takes three years to truly evaluate a draft pick. It takes time to learn the intricacy and speed of the NFL, and some positions have a notorious learning curve. Other times, some sort of catalyst helps a payer just click. A change of scenery or a new coaching scheme can allow a forgotten player to finally excel.
So seems to be the case of Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Oren Burks. After three lackluster years in Green Bay, Burks was a demon in the first exhibition game this year. The 26-year-old linebacker may have found his stride.
Burks started in the Packers’ first preseason game against the Houston Texans, with the team resting veteran De’Vondre Campbell and Kamal Martin recovering from injury. The fourth-year linebacker made the most of the opportunity.
New defensive coordinator Joe Barry used Burks as a blitzer, and he responded by showing his speed and vision. Burks practically owned a time share in the Texans’ backfield. Burks had six tackles on the night, two tackles for loss, and one sack. Pro Football Focus gave him a 75 rating, the fourth-highest for a Green Bay defender.
Burks, a core special teamer who had yet to make a splash on defense, needs to build on last Saturday’s showing. If he can build on his stellar performance, the Packers could suddenly have a dangerous group at inside linebacker.
A plethora of factors could explain why the light is turning on for Burks: a troubling injury history, the fact that he’s a converted safety, a better offseason routine, etc. But it seems most likely that the change in coaching staff from Mike Pettine to Joe Barry is the cause for his ascension.
Burks barely saw the field under Pettine, even with the dearth of talent on Green Bay’s inside linebacking unit. He played 122 defensive snaps in 2018, 57 in 2019, and 96 last year. Drafted to be a rangy coverage linebacker, Burks struggled. Pettine even started cross-training Burks as an outside linebacker in an ill-fated attempt to find a role for him.
A new scheme and coaching mindset are giving Burks new life. Barry, who spent the last three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams as an assistant head coach and linebackers coach, is putting Burks in a position to best use his skills. Barry’s scheme is light on blitzing, but he had no problem throwing Burks at the quarterback against Houston. Barry let Burks flash his elite athleticism and speed by throwing him at the offense and as a run-stopper.
Barry’s hiring as defensive coordinator met with mixed reception, but his skill with utilizing his off-ball linebackers can’t be denied. Barry’s linebackers found great success despite not having blue-chip inside linebackers in L.A. It didn’t hold up against the steamrolling Packers offense in last year’s playoffs, but don’t forget that the Rams had the best defense in the NFL coming into the postseason. Barry might not have been the primary conductor, but his fingerprints were all over that unit’s success, especially with the linebackers.
“The focus for me this offseason has been trusting my training and believing what I see and playing fast,” Burks said after the first preseason game. “I felt like that came to fruition in this game.”
Should Burks keep improving, he could be a valuable piece the defense lacked under Pettine: a speedy, rangy, do-it-all linebacker. The oft-maligned run defense would welcome developments like Burks’ stonewalling of David Johnson on a regular basis. Burks doesn’t need to be an every-down blitzer, but he could complement an already excellent pass-rush. If the 2021 version of Burks shows up in the regular season, even if just as a rotational piece, Barry’s defense will be dangerous.
Burks already has an important role as a leader on special teams. Finding a niche on defense is crucial for Burks in the final year of his rookie contract. With a new coaching staff ready to put him in a position to succeed, Burks might play his way into an extension in Green Bay.