GREEN BAY — Christian Kirksey loves his new team and teammates, even though the list of those he’s actually met face-to-face apparently ends at two.
The Green Bay Packers new inside linebacker signed a two-year, $13 million deal in March, a few days after being cut by the Cleveland Browns and just as the COVID-19 pandemic was shutting down the country. Kirksey visited the Packers on March 12, right before the NFL stopped allowing free agents to visit their prospective new teams and facilities across the league were closed to players, coaches, staff and the public.
As a result, Kirksey has gone through the Packers’ virtual offseason program knowing his new teammates only via Zoom video conference calls. The two players he knew already were outside linebacker Preston Smith, who joined the team during the more traditional 2019 free agency period, and left tackle David Bakhtiari, whom Kirksey said ex-Packers safety Micah Hyde had introduced to him years ago. (Hyde and Kirksey were college teammates at Iowa.)
“In Zoom meetings, it’s going pretty well because you can still sense personalities and just having those conversations, you don’t have to be in-person with the technology today,” Kirksey said during a Zoom call with Wisconsin reporters Wednesday afternoon. “You kind of feel like you’ve been knowing them for a while.”
People are also reading…
During his free agent visit to Lambeau Field, Kirksey was reunited with Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who was the Browns’ head coach in 2014, when the team took him in the third round of the draft. Kirksey intimated Wednesday that Pettine pushed hard for general manager Brian Gutekunst signed him.
“When I went on my visit to Green Bay, I felt right at home because I already had a relationship with him,” Kirksey said. “Green Bay’s feel kind of took me back to the Iowa feel, how the fans are super engaged with the players and the town, and it takes you right back to college.”
The 27-year-old Kirksey played two seasons for Pettine, setting the stage for the two most productive seasons of his career — 2016, when he posted 148 tackles, 2½ sacks and 11 tackles for loss, and 2017, when he had 138 tackles, 3½ sacks, six tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
But injuries derailed him the past two years, as he played just seven games in 2018 because of shoulder, ankle and hamstring injuries and played only two games last year after suffering a torn pectoral tendon that required surgery.
“We’re very excited about the signing. Just going through the medical part of it and talking to our people, they didn’t think it was anything that was long term,” Pettine said of Kirksey’s recent injuries. “He’s never been a guy that’s been injury prone, so obviously that’s a concern when you see the amount of time that he’s missed (the last two years).
“But overall, I just think it was a great signing for us for a lot of reasons. We’re not just bringing a really good player into the room. This is a guy who has great leadership ability. He already has a head start on learning the system with him being drafted, obviously when I was in Cleveland. Certainly it’s a risk when you look at it, but certainly it was a risk that we were more than willing to take.”
Added head coach Matt LaFleur last month: “(We were) really, really fortunate, especially considering the circumstances of this offseason, to get a guy that’s been in this system in Christian Kirksey. I’ve been super impressed with him. You can tell he’s a pro. He knows what’s going on already and shoot, we’ve only been meeting for a couple of weeks. It’ll be fun to get him and get all these guys back in the building.”
That’s something Kirksey is looking forward to, too. He’s also looking forward to something else: Winning.
In his six seasons in Cleveland, the Browns never had a winning record, going a combined 24-71-1 and enduring a 1-15 season in 2016 and an 0-16 season in 2017.
“My time being at Cleveland, we all know (how it went). Let’s not be blind to it,” Kirksey said. “Me coming into Green Bay, actually seeing Aaron Rodgers, who’s been there, who’s done that, who I was watching when I was a kid, him winning games, winning a Super Bowl, going to an NFC championship and maybe being a couple of plays short of going to the Super Bowl again, 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 and we’re going to be the hunted and things like that, I got excited. I was revved up because I’ve never been a part of that. I’m just excited.”
In Green Bay, Kirksey will take over for Blake Martinez, who left for a three-year, $30 million free agent deal with the New York Giants after four seasons where he amassed more than 500 tackles but rarely generated splash plays. In Kirksey, the Packers are hoping they have a versatile, athletic play-maker who will fare better in coverage and bolster a run defense that was gashed for 285 yards in the team’s NFC Championship Game loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Kirksey, meanwhile, is aiming to return to his pre-injury form and show that he can be a field-tilting player and complementary piece to Preston and Za’Darius Smith — both on defense and in the locker room.
“I want to get back to playing great football,” Kirksey said. “I think that signing this two-year deal and re-establishing myself and getting my name back out there and letting people know Christian Kirksey is back, Christian Kirksey is a great linebacker in this league. That’s what I’m shooting for.
“I have an individual goal that I want to achieve, and that’s to be the best linebacker in the league. For those who may have slept on me or said, ‘Oh, he’s injury prone’ or ‘He’s not the same player he used to be,’ I’m here to prove them wrong and prove to myself that I’ve still got what it takes to be one of the best linebackers in the league. That’s the individual chip that’s on my shoulder.
“I’m just appreciative that Green Bay took that chance on me and understands that I can play football. I’m excited about it. I’m going to take it full force, go out there and hit the ground running.’