GREEN BAY — Don’t get Chris Odom wrong. He was thrilled to have a job last season, and appreciated the opportunity the Green Bay Packers gave him.
But the circumstances of his arrival weren’t ideal. He came in after spending all of training camp with the Atlanta Falcons before being claimed on waivers by the Packers; learned a new, complicated playbook as an undrafted rookie; moved from being a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end to a stand-up outside linebacker; and arrived at Lambeau Field the same week that decorated veteran pass-rusher Ahmad Brooks, a two-time All-Pro, also came in.
A year later, Odom is once again learning a new defense — but he’s not alone. With new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine installing his scheme, everyone on defense spent the offseason in learning mode. And with a year under his belt — even though it entailed just 72 snaps from scrimmage (59 on defense, 13 on special teams) — he’s better prepared to contribute at an outside linebacker position devoid of proven depth.
“I feel I have a better jumpstart on being here as far as having more time to learn a new scheme, the playbook and everything. So it’s definitely going a whole lot better,” Odom said during the offseason program. “Instead of learning during the season and learning week-to-week, game-to-game, now I’ve had the offseason to have the proper time and preparation for the new defense.
“It was a little hectic (last year) because I went from a 4-3 defensive end to a stand-up outside linebacker learning drops, coverages, a whole new defense on the fly. I couldn’t learn the whole defense in a week before a game. I had to learn what plays we were going to run game to game.
“It wasn’t easy, but I stuck to it. I hung in there.”
Because he did, Odom should be in the mix for snaps this season after first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst eschewed adding any edge rushers during the early rounds of the NFL draft. None of the other candidates behind starters Clay Matthews and Nick Perry have extensive playing experience, either.
Odom will battle with Kyler Fackrell, a third-round pick in 2016 who has yet to earn consistent playing time; ex-University of Wisconsin standout Vince Biegel, who had a difficult rookie season after undergoing corrective surgery on both feet after the rookie orientation camp; Reggie Gilbert, a two-year practice-squad player who flashed after a late-season call-up; and rookie seventh-round pick Kendall Donnerson, who looks more like an athletic, long-term project than a likely 2018 contributor.
Pettine admitted during the offseason that he didn’t know much about any of the young outside linebackers behind Matthews and Perry, which puts them all on a level playing field in their quests for playing time.
“I was able to go back and watch what (film) I could. Some guys, I had to go back even to college film or two years ago,” Pettine said of his video study. “The best film is the film in our system right here in front of us. That’s why I’m looking so much forward to training camp — you can only do so much of an evaluation of guys in shorts. It’s no different than the combine, projecting guys out as opposed to watching their college film. Seeing guys in shorts is one thing, but training camp with pads on will be the true test for most of our guys.”
The 6-foot-4, 256-pound Odom intends to make the most of his first training camp in Green Bay. He made a strong impression as an undrafted rookie in the Falcons’ camp, registering 17 tackles and two sacks in four preseason games, including an eight-tackle, one-sack performance in the Falcons’ preseason finale against Jacksonville.
It wasn’t enough to earn him a spot on the Falcons’ 53-man roster, however, and he was set to sign on to Atlanta’s practice squad when his agent informed him with 5 minutes left in the waiver window that the Packers had claimed him.
That didn’t come as a huge surprise to Odom, who had a strong senior season at Arkansas State (12½ sacks and 17½ tackles for loss) and visited the Packers prior to the 2017 draft.
“I thought I was going to be drafted by them. But it didn’t work out,” Odom said. “I had an idea other teams were watching me throughout the preseason. All I could do is just make the best of the situation when I was in Atlanta. Just do what I do in the preseason and hopefully someone else watches it in case things don’t work out. Everything happens for a reason. I’m just glad to be here.”
Odom said he feels far more comfortable as a stand-up linebacker on the edge than he did last year, as he said it was “about an even split” among teams who projected him as a 4-3 end or 3-4 outside linebacker. But the greatest comfort came from being in the Packers’ offseason program all spring and learning the scheme with everyone else.
“It definitely helps,” Odom said. “It helps going out there learning it, seeing it and making the on-field adjustments as far as the alignments and techniques. It’s one thing when you’re in the room looking at papers and drawings. That’s one thing. You have to have that understanding in your mind before you hit the field. When you hit the field, that’s more live action. That’s something you can understand. You’re in the moment.”