Packers address Jake Ryan's season-ending injury with familiar 'patience'

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The picture from Tuesday's practice said everything anyone needs to know about the Green Bay Packers' situation at inside linebacker after Jake Ryan suffered a season-ending knee injury.

There was assistant coach Patrick Graham, with his hands on knees shouting encouragement and instructions. Next to him was Blake Martinez, the third-year pro who last season tied for the NFL lead in tackles. Next to him were five other players, none of them who had ever played a down in the league.

And it could stay that way, at least for a while.

New general manager Brian Gutekunst channeled his inner Ted Thompson when he indicated he's more likely to stand pat and watch the players he has rather than bring in a veteran free agent. There was only one inside linebacker -- NaVorro Bowman -- on the list of best available free agents compiled by ESPN's Kevin Seifert.

"I think just kind of watching Ted all those years going through these scenarios, I think the best practice is patience," Gutekunst said. "We have some young players that show some promise out there, and we'd kind of like them to continue to grow into those kind of roles and see what we have. At the same time, we're kind of always on the scenes preparing for everything."

With that in mind, the most likely candidate to replace Ryan is rookie Oren Burks. He lined up in Ryan's spot when defensive coordinator Mike Pettine used his traditional base 3-4 and nickel alignment in the practice immediately following the injury. The third-round pick from Vanderbilt has shown versatility, having played safety plus both inside and outside linebacker in college.

The Packers also are high on undrafted rookie Greer Martini of Notre Dame. Yes, it would be an unlikely assignment for a guy who didn't even sign immediately after the draft -- he was added to the roster after he participated in rookie camp on a tryout basis -- but Martini's reps on defense and with the top special-teams units early in camp cannot be discounted.

The rest of the group includes former practice-squad linebacker Ahmad Thomas, who had an impressive pass breakup on fourth down of a two-minute drill in the second practice of camp, plus undrafted rookies Naashon Hughes (a converted outside backer) and Marcus Porter.

"You have to pull your unit together, especially us as inside linebackers," Martinez said after Ryan's injury. "I told each and every one of them, ‘This is a tough situation. No one ever wants one of our guys to get hurt. But I go back to my rookie year, guys got hurt, I got a chance to step up and all of a sudden I'm starting.' It's at those points where [you ask], ‘All right, what are you going to do now, to be that guy that can step up and make those plays?' And if you can do that, it's going to help us out that much more."

Pettine could take a nontraditional approach to replacing Ryan, at least in some packages. Former defensive coordinator Dom Capers relied heavily on what he called his "nitro" package, which featured a defensive back -- usually safety Morgan Burnett or Josh Jones -- at one of the inside linebacker positions with the idea that it would give the Packers more speed on the field. Burnett departed in free agency and Jones might start in his old safety spot -- especially if Kentrell Brice can't recover from his ankle injury. Pettine has used cornerback Quinten Rollins in a similar role during some of the early practices.

"Well, certainly we have experience in a guy who was very productive last year in Blake," Pettine said Wednesday during his first session with reporters during camp. "We have the rookie, O.B. [Burks], who has flashed some things. The transition from the college game to the NFL, it takes some time. He's very intelligent, he processes very quickly, but there's still just that learning curve. It's tough for those guys to come in, and it overwhelms them a little bit at first. And especially now, we're working off the entire inventory. I mean, we'll have all the defenses in by Friday or maybe one or two for Saturday. That's overwhelming. And once we get to game-plan situations, we really cut it down. That's going to help a lot of our guys that we have a lot stuff running through their head. But he's no stranger to that at this point.

"Ahmad Thomas has flashed, certainly, some coverage ability in the days so far. And then we have some other, younger guys. We'll see how it plays out. It's a big loss with Jake, and I know we're going to get together as a staff later this week when we talk about the roster and kind of where we are moving forward and what our needs are. I know there's certainly open lines of communication with the personnel department."