GREEN BAY – Kyler Fackrell believes it’s no accident how his rookie season unfolded.
The outside linebacker posted his first two NFL sacks in back-to-back games in the first quarter of the year, including a pivotal sack-fumble at the end of the first half that helped the Packers seize momentum in a prime-time victory over the Giants.
A few weeks later, though, a hamstring problem flared up. He tried to fight through it, ended up missing three games, and then was relegated almost exclusively to special teams down the stretch.
He wasn’t the same potential-filled pass-rusher he had shown earlier, because the long season had taken its toll.
“It’s hard,” Fackrell said following a recent OTA practice. “That’s something that I learned as the season kind of wore on last year. I got a little worn down, and I think that’s something everyone has to learn, how they need to take care of their bodies and also staying in a good frame of mind.”
Fackrell is now back for his second season renewed and refreshed. He said he’s added roughly 10 pounds of muscle mass this spring, extra size his 6-5 frame can easily carry.
Position coach Winston Moss said Fackrell is “off to a good start” in 2017, and for Fackrell, being bigger and stronger is the reason.
Not only is he better suited to set the edge against the run in the mid-250s, but he also feels he’s not relegated to strictly avoiding or running around offensive tackles to get to the quarterback. He can get “into their bodies” a little more, which should expand his repertoire of pass-rush moves.
“It’s just about making sure you’re getting stronger as you’re gaining the weight,” he said. “As I’ve been able to do that, I don’t think I’ve lost any speed.”
The Packers can’t afford to lose any more developmental time with Fackrell, a third-round pick out of Utah State in 2016 whose injuries as a rookie slowed his progress. Head Coach Mike McCarthy said at the scouting combine that he felt Fackrell was really coming on when the hamstring injury hit.
Clay Matthews and Nick Perry are the unquestioned starters at outside linebacker, but Julius Peppers and Datone Jones are now gone. That leaves Fackrell, fourth-year pro Jayrone Elliott, practice-squad holdover Reggie Gilbert, and fourth-round rookie Vince Biegel (currently recovering from foot surgery) next up.
McCarthy spoke positively about the depth at the position, which Fackrell took as a vote of confidence, but he added in the same breath it’s up to him to perform consistently and justify the coaching staff’s belief in him.
“I wouldn’t say it’s pressure, but I’m definitely excited,” Fackrell said. “I know there’s a big opportunity for myself, for Jayrone, for Reggie.
“The outside linebackers are seen as kind of the leader group of the defense. There’s Clay and there’s Nick and those guys are going to produce, they’re going to be great leaders. But there’s definitely roles to be filled, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Fackrell’s conditioning will be at a premium because his special-teams duties aren’t likely to diminish, not after tying for second on the team with nine coverage tackles in 2016.
He often played 20-plus snaps on special teams in games as a rookie, and his defensive workload this year could regularly reach that and more as a rotational edge-rusher. It’s probably not a coincidence that last year, it was just one week after his most active game (29 snaps on special teams, 31 on defense) that his hamstring gave out.
He knows what the NFL grind is all about now, though. It’s difficult to prepare for it until a player has been through it, but Fackrell’s eyes are wide open.
“When you play the best is when you feel the best, so taking care of yourself is huge,” Fackrell said, “especially with the wear and tear you have through that long season.”