GREEN BAY – Jake Ryan wants to pick up where he left off.
A starter at inside linebacker over the final month of his rookie year, the Packers’ fourth-round draft pick in 2015 was playing his best during the playoffs in January, according to assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley.
Ryan notched his season high for tackles with 10 against Minnesota in Week 17 and was looking more and more natural in Dom Capers’ defense in the season’s biggest games.
“Once we got in the playoffs there, I think mentally it was coming a little faster to him,” McCurley said. “It might have been due to a little more heightened preparation – a level he needs to stay at all the time now – but the reps finally kicked in, the preparation kicked in, and he was playing fast and did a good job in the playoff run.”
Nothing statistically jumps out about the two playoff contests, but McCurley saw Ryan’s strides on film. He might have made that progress sooner, and been in the starting lineup earlier last year, had it not been for an early-season hamstring injury that forced him to miss two games and several valuable practices.
But that’s irrelevant now. Ryan is entering his second NFL season “in a good place,” McCurley said, looking for more.
It starts with more knowledge. While Ryan focused as a rookie on learning his assignment, broadening his perspective of the scheme was a primary goal throughout the offseason program.
“Just knowing what everyone is doing on the defense,” Ryan said of the next step for his game. “That’s going to help tremendously.”
More speed could bring more responsibility, too. Ryan looked noticeably leaner and toned-up this spring, using a diet and workout regimen to reshape his body as part of his Year 2 plan.
“I’ve just been eating better,” he said. “Last year, I wasn’t myself. I wasn’t the 240 (pounds) I want to be.
“I haven’t lost any weight, but I’ve just trimmed down some fat. It’s definitely already made a difference. I feel a lot better. I just feel faster.”
That should pay dividends on special teams (Ryan had six coverage tackles last season) and in pass-coverage matchups against running backs and tight ends, an area Capers wants to shore up on the Packers’ defense.
Stanford’s Blake Martinez was drafted in the fourth round to potentially fill that role, but don’t count out Ryan taking on the duty as well. Ryan and Martinez took the majority of the snaps at inside linebacker with the No. 1 defense through OTAs and minicamp with Sam Barrington still sidelined following last year’s season-ending foot injury.
Who plays in which defensive package will be sorted out through training camp and the preseason, and the result for Ryan could depend on conquering his learning curve.
A defensive end and outside linebacker for the bulk of his college career at Michigan, Ryan moved to inside linebacker for his senior season, so he’s only in his third year at his current position.
Early on in 2015, McCurley saw Ryan misreading keys, which led to “false footwork.” Aside from his 47 tackles (plus 10 in the two playoff games), Ryan had only one other notable statistic on his ledger, a fumble recovery at Detroit in Week 13.
But as the time to read, react and get from Point A to Point B changes, so does the game, especially for defenders in the middle of the field.
“Now you can really start seeing what the offense is telling you,” McCurley said. “You can anticipate more, you’re cleaning up those keys.
“He’s always been a relentless player, getting to the ball and having production. Now, he just needs to make it easier on himself, put himself in position to make more productive plays, more TFLs, things like that.”
Maybe those were coming if the Packers’ playoff run had lasted a little longer. Ryan felt like everything was clicking better then, too.
“I think he’s right,” Ryan said of McCurley’s evaluation. “As the season went on, I got more and more comfortable with where I was at, the game speed and everything, and guys flying at me.
“I just have to keep taking those steps forward.”