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Jake Ryan's coach: 'Smart' move by Packers to draft Michigan linebacker

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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Greg Mattison isn't just another college coach stumping for a former player. When the University of Michigan defensive assistant says Jake Ryan is the perfect fit for the Green Bay Packers, there's value in Mattison's words.

Mattison has NFL experience; he was on the Baltimore Ravens' coaching staff from 2008-10, the last two years as defensive coordinator. And his knowledge of the Packers goes beyond the surface; he grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, has followed the team his entire life, and knows members of the current coaching staff.

"When I saw the Packers got him, I said, 'This is smart,'" Mattison said in a phone interview a few days after the Packers picked his standout linebacker in the fourth round. "He just loves the game. I don't know if there was ever a day -- and I had him for four years -- there was never a time when he didn't come to meetings excited. He played hard all the time. You never had to get on him about the things that you had to with some guys.

"That's why it's the perfect fit for the kind of organization that Green Bay is."

It wasn't easy to find an inside linebacker in last week's draft. Only one, Clemson's Stephone Anthony, went in the first round, at No. 31 -- one pick after the Packers selected cornerback Damarious Randall of Arizona State.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson didn't love any of the second-round inside linebackers -- Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney (43rd overall to the Houston Texans), UCLA's Eric Kendricks (45th to the Minnesota Vikings) or Miami's Denzel Perryman (48th to the San Diego Chargers) -- at least not enough to trade up to pick one of them before he went back on the clock at No. 62. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Ryan was the sixth inside linebacker to come off the board at No. 129 overall.

The Packers used five different starters at the two inside backer spots last season. They finally settled on Sam Barrington and Clay Matthews, their Pro Bowl outside linebacker, on the interior of their defense, but the addition of Ryan could allow Matthews to move back to his natural position.

"They can be hard to find," Packers director of player personnel Eliot Wolf said of inside linebackers. "I wouldn't say it's a dying breed. I think Jake can do it."

Mattison explained why Ryan switched to inside linebacker after playing his first three seasons on the outside.

"I was not taking Jake off the field," said Mattison, noting that the Wolverines took one of their linebackers off the field in their nickel package. "So I put him inside, and he picked it up right away."

The Packers don't view Ryan as just a three-down player. They believe he can be a core special-teams contributor, too.

"I think he has the ability to play on all four downs," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think that’s the highest compliment you can give to a player."

Ryan does not have to play right away; the Packers could keep Matthews inside as they did in the second half of last season. But if the Packers want to go that route with their rookie, Mattison believes it would not be a problem.

"He's been an outside backer and he's been an inside backer, so now going to a 3-4 [from a 4-3] won't be as big of a challenge as it would be for some people," Mattison said.

The Packers fell in love with Ryan's attitude, character, toughness and, of course, playmaking ability.

Wolf spoke of Ryan's almost unheard of 6½-month recovery from a torn ACL in 2013. Most players are lucky if they come back eight or 10 months after surgery.

But it wasn't fast enough for Ryan, who said his goal was "six months."

"He's as tough a football player as I've ever been around," Mattison said. "He came back four weeks early from that knee two years ago, and he told me when it happened. Right when it happened, right when I walked out on the field, he looked at me and said, 'Coach, I'll be back faster than any guy's ever been back.' And he was."