Green Bay Packers linebacker Christian Kirksey is eager to reintroduce himself to the NFL after missing most of the last two seasons.
Kirksey once ranked among the league’s most prolific tacklers, but a hamstring injury caused him to play just seven games in 2018 and a torn pectoral muscle limited him to two games last year.
Now he’s beginning a new chapter as he attempts to boost a Packers defense that gave up 285 yards rushing to San Francisco in last year’s NFC championship game. The former Cleveland Browns linebacker makes his Packers debut Sunday at Minnesota.
“The past two years due to injury, I’ve missed some time with football, but I know who I am,” Kirksey said. “I know what type of football player I am. It’s just a good opportunity to go out there and ball out. And that’s all I’m focused on doing, is playing as one with this defense and just going out there and having fun.”
Kirksey, 28, signed a two-year, $13 million deal with Green Bay in March after the Browns released him in a move that saved them about $7 million in salary cap space. The move reunites him with Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who was Cleveland’s head coach from 2014-15.
“He’s everything that you’re looking for,” Pettine said. “He’s smart. He’s tough. You know and I know he’s had his issues. He was healthy for a good chunk of time early in his career, and then unfortunately he’s had some injuries that set him back the last two. But we’re certainly looking forward to getting the best of him this year.”
The Packers need Kirksey to stay healthy because of injury issues elsewhere at his position.
Kamal Martin, a fifth-round pick from Minnesota, will miss at least the first three games after hurting his knee and going on injured reserve. Oren Burks sat out four games with a chest injury last season and has been dealing with a groin issue lately, though he was a full participant in Thursday’s practice. The Packers also have Ty Summers, who played primarily on special teams last season.
That puts more responsibility on Kirksey, one of the lone offseason additions to Green Bay’s defense. Kirksey replaces Blake Martinez, who led the Packers in tackles for three straight seasons before leaving for the New York Giants.
“I think Christian had an excellent camp,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said. I think the fun thing was just how quickly he got up to speed and started leading that defense. He’s a very athletic player. He’s obviously proven a lot in this league. He’s healthy and I think he adds a little bit of dynamic ability that maybe we’ve been missing for a little while.”
Until the last two seasons, Kirksey had a reputation for never missing games. He started 38 straight at Iowa and played all 16 games each of his first four seasons with Cleveland.
He has posted remarkable numbers when healthy. Seattle’s Bobby Wagner was the only player to collect more total tackles than Kirksey from 2016-17, according to sportsradar.
The Packers want Kirksey to shore up a run defense that got embarrassed in the playoffs.
They get an early test Sunday when they face Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, who ran for 154 yards last September in the Vikings’ 21-16 loss at Green Bay. The Packers allowed just 57 yards on 16 carries in an NFC North-clinching 23-10 victory at Minnesota three months later, but an injured Cook didn’t play that day.
“Having a good run defense is just attitude,” Kirksey said.
Kirksey explained that players must have a willingness to stop the run by staying in their gaps and maintaining their responsibilities. He believes Green Bay’s defense has that kind of attitude.
“There’s no secret formula to it,” Kirksey said. “I think the guys are fully invested into understanding teams are going to try to run the ball. It’s our job to stop them. I wasn’t a part of the San Francisco game, but I can just see that guys are really putting a special emphasis on stopping the run here.”
NOTES: The Packers signed defensive lineman Daylon Mack and running back Dexter Williams to their practice squad. They released running back Damarea Crockett and offensive lineman Alex Light. … Offensive lineman Billy Turner was a limited participant in Thursday’s practice as he deals with a knee injury.