Packers rookie Jake Ryan, a fourth-round draft pick, has only been playing inside linebacker for one year.
GREEN BAY, Wis. — It could not have taken Jake Ryan long after being drafted by the Packers to see the opportunity that was in front of him. Whether through his own roster analysis of his new team, or with help from his agent or friends, it didn’t require intimate knowledge of Green Bay’s depth chart at inside linebacker to recognize the glaring weakness at that position.
The team categorized the selection of Ryan in the fourth round as "staying to the board." It’s certainly possible Ryan was the Packers’ highest-rated overall player among those who were available at No. 129, but it sure made a lot of sense to pick an inside linebacker before the draft continued any longer.
When Ryan reported to Green Bay, though, his approach was similar to a player whose position had a logjam of talent. If anything, Ryan’s mentality was that of a player who had very low expectations being placed upon him.
"Who knows?," Ryan said when asked if he’d be ready to contribute significantly in Year 1 of his NFL career. "Let’s see how practice goes and how this offseason goes."
Of course it’s going to be a wait-and-see situation with Ryan. That’s true of any rookie. But there’s no first-year player on the Packers’ roster with a better chance to play right away.
Green Bay’s first two picks, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, will be competing with veterans like Sam Shields and Casey Hayward for playing time. Third-round pick Ty Montgomery might be returning kickoffs from the get-go, but his contributions on offense will likely be slim. It would take an injury to Aaron Rodgers for fifth-rounder Brett Hundley to get on the field, and even that wouldn’t happen until the former UCLA quarterback beat out Scott Tolzien. Sixth-round choices Aaron Ripkowski, Christian Ringo and Kennard Backman should all have a role as rookies, but none of them can be every-down players like Ryan can.
"You can’t look at it like that at all right now," Ryan said. "I’m just trying to get my head in the playbook, compete and get out there and show what I can do."
Ryan has only been playing inside linebacker for one year. After Ryan suffered a knee injury in his junior season at Michigan, Wolverines coach Greg Mattison began nudging him to make a position switch from his previous spot as the strongside/Sam linebacker.
"I knew it was coming, but I didn’t really know how quick or when," Ryan said of eventually being asked to play inside linebacker.
The results were certainly there for him. Ryan had a career-best 112 tackles as a senior, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors.
"I loved it," Ryan said. "And it worked out."
Upon getting his first look at Ryan in a practice setting, head coach Mike McCarthy sure seemed glad that the position change had occurred a year earlier.
"I like what Jake’s done," McCarthy said during rookie orientation camp. "He’s bigger than I thought he was in person. I like that. He’s picked it up clean. Making the calls out there. He’s been very assertive. He’s off to a good start."
And if there was any doubt that Ryan was picking up on the intricacies of the position at the NFL level, McCarthy cleared that up.
Going into training camp, Ryan will be competing for a starting job alongside Sam Barrington, Carl Bradford, Joe Thomas and undrafted rookie Tavarus Dantzler. Nate Palmer should get plenty of looks there, too, while Clay Matthews remains the wild-card.
Aside from the versatile Matthews, it’s far from an experienced group. That’s apparent when Barrington’s 485 career snaps put him atop the leaderboard.
General manager Ted Thompson didn’t venture into the fourth round for Ryan just to watch him lose out to someone like Thomas or Dantzler.
"You can’t feel the pressure," Ryan said. "You have to go in every single day, compete, work as hard as you can, learn the playbook, learn everything you can, ask questions. That’s what I’m doing right now."
During draft weekend, director of player personnel Eliot Wolf noted that with Ryan, "his instincts are something that really stands out."
"He can get through traffic, he can make plays on the outside, he can penetrate and make plays on the inside run," Wolf said. "Pretty good in coverage. Kind of an all-around guy that we felt adds really good value to our team."
Wolf later said, "I wouldn’t say we need (Ryan) to play right away."
Perhaps not. If Bradford develops after what was essentially a redshirt rookie season, or if Thomas builds off of what he did early in training camp last year, or if Matthews is asked to once again be the savior of the position, then no, Ryan doesn’t necessarily need to play right away.
Ryan did play quite a bit on special teams in college. He was still on the punt and kickoff units as a senior, too. And while the Packers would be happy if Ryan worked himself into a consistent role on the special-teams units that struggled so badly in 2014, there will be expectations for him to earn a starting spot on defense sooner than later.
"It’s a huge opportunity," Ryan said. "I just have to keep working toward it, get my head in the playbook, see what I did on film and take it in (to the next day)."