Be careful when Kirksey celebrates after a big play.
And, according to Hyde -- the former Packers safety who now plays for the Bills -- there will be big plays. He saw plenty when the two were teammates in college at Iowa.
“I told him, ‘I’m never going to celebrate with [you], because [you] almost broke my ankle one time celebrating,’” Hyde told ESPN.com. “One time we were jumping up and down, and I landed on his foot and twisted my ankle in the middle of a game.
“There’s always been a forced fumble, an interception, a big hit. He’s going to bring the energy, make a play and he’s for sure going to get up and celebrate.”
That’s why the Packers signed him.
Yes, there’s the recent injury history; Kirksey hasn’t finished either of the past two seasons. He missed all but the first two games last season because of a torn pectoral muscle and finished the 2018 season on injured reserve because of a hamstring injury. After playing all 16 games in each of his first four seasons for the Cleveland Browns, Kirksey totaled just nine games over the next two years. The Browns released him in March, and the Packers signed him to a two-year, $13 million deal shortly thereafter. It signaled the Packers’ desire to let longtime starting linebacker Blake Martinez leave in free agency, unwilling to pay Martinez what he ultimately got (three years, $30.75 million) from the New York Giants.
As reliable as Martinez was -- he played in every game from 2017-19 and recorded more than 100 tackles in each of those seasons (including a league leading 144 in 2017) -- the Packers wanted more in the splash-play department from their every-down inside linebacker.
In four seasons, Martinez totaled 10 sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. In Kirksey’s first four seasons before the injuries hit, he had 11.5 sacks, no interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
But a deeper look into the two players, thanks to NFL Next Gen Stats, could show the difference. Kirksey has more “run stuffs” -- defined as tackles made on run plays resulting in no gain or a loss -- than Martinez over the past four season despite playing significantly fewer games. In 20 less games since 2016, Kirksey has 44 “run stuffs” to Martinez’s 41, giving him a “run-stuff” percentage of 3.7 to Martinez's 2.7.
Also, Kirksey has just four fewer QB pressures (22) than Martinez (26) going back to 2017 despite playing in 23 fewer games. So, Kirksey recorded nearly one pressure per game over the past three seasons, while Martinez averaged one-half a pressure in that span.
Martinez, however, defended his lack of big plays by telling reporters who cover the Giants that he was asked to be “the cleanup crew guy” in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme and said other players were “able to do whatever they wanted to do and then I would go make the plays depending on that.”
“I know there’s been things like, 'You make tackles down the field, you make tackles here, you make tackles there,'” Martinez said. “For the majority of the time there, that’s what I was told to do. It’s just me doing my job in that sense.”
Kirksey, who was drafted by the Browns while Pettine was their head coach and played for him for two seasons (2014-2015), doesn’t necessarily see the middle linebacker’s role the same way.
“Just looking at the playbook, I think there are plays out there for the Mike [linebacker],” Kirksey said recently on a conference call with Packers reporters. “Blake maybe just wanted to do a little bit more because he feels like he’s capable of fitting in other ways. As for me, I enjoy the position. Playing in it my first two years, seeing guys like Karlos Dansby [in that] role, I saw the plays that he made.
“Sometimes, it’s the NFL, you’ve got to go make plays you might not be expected to make. You have to take chances sometimes. Just looking at Blake’s film, I thought that he was making plays in the games. It showed. He was always in the top five in tackles. For him, he probably had some other goals. Not saying that the Mike position is the most glorified position … [but if] that’s how he feels, you’ve got to respect it. For me, I’m going and understanding that it’s my job, it’s what they want me to do, so I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”
Hyde, a year older than Kirksey at Iowa, believes that will continue for the Packers. The two have been regular offseason workout partners in San Diego the past several years and even lived together until Hyde got married and had a son, Micah Jr., this offseason.
“It was funny because when he stepped on campus at Iowa, he was my size,” Hyde said “He was like 175 pounds. He was so tall and lanky, but he always had that big hitter in him -- even at that size. He came in as a freshman, and he was hitting people. I think that’s what caught the eyes of the coaches. They’re like, ‘OK, this kid’s not very big and we haven’t even put any weight on him yet and he’s out there just crushing people.’ That’s what he brings to the table.”
Hyde also sensed a renewed enthusiasm for the game from Kirksey, not only reunited with Pettine but finally with a winning organization.
“I’m so happy to see him out of Cleveland, to be honest,” Hyde said. “He’s had a season where they didn’t win a game, where they won one game, won three games. His best season is like 6-10 or 7-9. I couldn’t imagine. Especially in Green Bay, when if you have a losing season, it’s over with.”
Said Kirksey: “I’m excited to be a part of that; I’ve never been a part of that in my six years in the league. I’ve never even had a winning season in my career. Just to get on Zoom and be a part of a team meeting when you see your head coach say we went undefeated in our division ... I got excited. I was revved up because I’ve never been a part of that.”
The inside linebacker group remains a question mark for Pettine’s defense because outside of Kirksey, it’s mostly young and unproven, with the likes of third-year pro Oren Burks, second-year pro Ty Summers and rookie fifth-round pick Kamal Martin.
Kirksey will be expected to stay healthy and make impact plays -- like one Hyde remembered from Iowa. It was against Northern Illinois, a team that shouldn’t be able to come into Iowa City and win. The Hawkeyes were down 10-0 on their home turf and NIU had the ball. In pass coverage, Kirksey drilled a receiver in the flat, knocked the ball loose and returned it for a touchdown.
“He was just always around the ball making plays,” Hyde said. “It’s crazy because back then he would guard slot receivers. In certain defenses that we ran, we had a linebacker out there and he was on his own against big-time slot receivers. We shouldn’t have been losing to a MAC team, and he just made a play. He just has that energy, he has that aura around him that he’s going to lead the team. He’s a high-energy guy.”