GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Oren Burks couldn’t bench-press 135 pounds. Forget the 18 reps of 225 pounds he did at the combine in 2018 right before the Green Bay Packers drafted him in the third round; he couldn’t even get the bar plus two 45-pound plates off his chest in March.
Still, Burks played 292 special-teams plays and 69 snaps on defense last year in such a weakened state after he tore a pectoral muscle in the preseason -- an injury that cost him a starting job and the first four games of the season.
“Looking back at some of the games from last year and the way that he led with his shoulder and not really taking on contact from the front,” his personal trainer, Josh Cuthbert said, “I’m 100 percent convinced it was because he couldn’t.”
Now he can.
“Now he has two arms to go along with being one of the best athletes on the field,” Cuthbert said.
The Packers had penciled in Burks as their second starting inside linebacker last season next to Blake Martinez until he ripped the muscle in his chest in the preseason opener against the Texans. He didn’t see the field again until Oct. 6 and then it was mostly on special teams, as the Packers had settled on B.J. Goodson in their base defense and a host of rotating safeties at inside backer in their sub packages.
It was much the same during Burks’ rookie summer. He had moved into a starting spot after Jake Ryan tore his ACL early in camp only to dislocate his left shoulder in warm-ups -- yes, in warm-ups -- before the penultimate preseason game. He played just 122 snaps on defense as a rookie.
So here’s Burks, ready for Round 3. He once again opened training camp with the No. 1 defense, this time next to free-agent acquisition Christian Kirksey as part of an inside linebacker combination that the Packers expect to produce more splash plays.
No preseason games, no problem
After two nightmarish Augusts, no one could be happier that the NFL canceled all preseason games as part of its plan to ensure they can play a full season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve had some bad luck in preseason,” Burks said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. “It was definitely tough just dealing with injuries in back to back years. But for me I just try to look at the positive and try to find ways I can add value to the team, learn more about the game, picking up the playbook, working on my football IQ.
“I know my role can definitely increase as long as I stay healthy and the more I get comfortable with the defense. I’m just extremely confident going into this year.”
And as long as he stays healthy.
From 135 pounds to 325
Burks understands that as the 88th pick in the draft out of Vanderbilt, there’s more expected than just 191 defensive snaps in two seasons.
But the fact is, the Packers are banking on two players with recent injury history to revamp their inside linebacker position. The Packers signed Kirksey to a two-year, $13 million deal after they let Martinez leave in free agency for the New York Giants. Kirksey missed all but the first two games of last season with the Cleveland Browns because of, coincidentally, a pectoral injury. He also missed nine games in 2018 because of shoulder, ankle and hamstring injuries.
“Maybe Kirksey stays healthy and their starters could be two hurt guys in 2019 – Kirksey and the Vandy kid,” a scout for an NFC team said. “That kid has been hurt so often but if he can stay healthy, he’s a good prospect if his body holds up.”
That’s where Cuthbert and his crew came in.
Packers tight end Robert Tonyan and 49ers tight end George Kittle have worked out with Cuthbert in offseasons past, paving the way for Burks to join them this past spring in Nashville, which Burks has called home since his college days.
Their work began shortly before the coronavirus swept the nation and was supposed to run through mid-April when players were scheduled to return to Green Bay for the offseason program. Once that was relegated to a virtual system, Burks continued his work in Nashville, a blessing in disguise perhaps.
“We had 20 weeks to train without an OTA in the middle where they don’t typically spend a bunch of time in the weight room, so we were able to really build his body,” Cuthbert said.
“What he really wanted to do was pack on some muscle and some size but make sure he didn’t lose any of his athleticism. But if he put on some size, it would help his longevity. We put on 12 pounds and he didn’t lose any of his measurements from his combine.”
But first, he had to get his pec to fire.
“His pec didn’t really bother him anymore but it also didn’t function very well,” Cuthbert said. “He was unable to really press away from his body with any sort of his force.
“He went from 135 pounds to 325 pounds on the bench press. All the guys can bench press 300 pounds but not all the guys add 200 pounds to their bench press in an offseason. He jumped 39 inches; it was probably 40 but we ran out of room to measure his and Kittle’s verticals. They both broad-jumped 11 feet and on top of that he weighed in heavier than he has in the past.”
Burks was listed at 233 pounds last season, but Cuthbert called that “program weight.”
“He was much lighter than 233,” Cuthbert said.
By the time Burks left Nashville for training camp in late July, his weight had climbed to the mid-240s.
“I can’t even put into words how excited I am for this year just to showcase my talent and the culmination of all the work that I’ve been putting in these last couple of years even though it hasn’t completely come to fruition on the field,” Burks said. “I’m a way smarter player, way more instinctive player, stronger, faster. This the best I’ve felt in a very long time, so it’s all boiling up to this point where I can just have a great year and lead this team to a Super Bowl. I know that I can add value in so many areas, so I’m excited to showcase my talent."
Influence on and off the field
Anyone who knows about Burks knows there’s more to him than just football.
Before most were talking about social justice, Burks was out front as a student at Vanderbilt, where he co-founded REVAMP -- Revitalizing and Empowering Vanderbilt's African-American Male Population.
He has been talking about social justice and racial inequality well before it came to the forefront this offseason after George Floyd’s death, and he’s heartened by the changes he’s seen already by the NFL community.
He loved the Packers’ video on social justice and applauded the team's $125,000 donation to the Sherman Phoenix Project (which has helped develop the Sherman Park neighborhood in Milwaukee), but he’s also especially proud of the progress the team has made inside the building, starting with coach Matt LaFleur.
“Coach has been all about these actionable steps so we can really create change – that’s getting out to vote, encouraging our community either here in Green Bay, Wisconsin, or back home wherever you’re from and have influence to get out and register to vote,” Burks said. “We actually had a conference call with Rock the Vote to make sure that all of our players and staff are registered to vote. It gets really complicated for NFL athletes, because we’re here half the year and what’s your primary residency, and they did a great job answering those questions. That’s one important step.
“Ultimately it’s been encouraging to see the steps we’ve taken so far but knowing we have a lot further to go.”
The same could be said for his work on the field.