Packers.com is examining the Packers’ roster, position by position. In the sixth installment, we look at the linebackers.
GREEN BAY—No position group was hit harder by injuries than linebacker last season, so that alone almost makes it a given the Packers won’t be starting 2013 the way they finished 2012 at either the inside or outside spots.
Add in some contract situations and the ups and downs witnessed within the linebacker corps last season, and perhaps even more change could be afoot. In Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme, there’s no such thing as too many linebackers.
On the inside, last season began with Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk as holdover starters, but when Bishop was lost to a season-ending hamstring injury in the preseason, in stepped D.J. Smith. He was then lost to a season-ending knee injury in Week 6, so next up was Brad Jones.
The depth proved valuable, and it now raises the question as to which is the best starting combination.
Bishop has professed to be ready for training camp, and the Packers will welcome back his aggressive, hard-hitting style. Provided he’s healthy, Bishop is the every-down rock inside. His partner, however, could be any number of players.
Hawk is regularly praised by the coaching staff for his knowledge of the defense and leadership on the field, and he led the team in tackles in 2012. But for the second straight season he was not involved in a single turnover play (interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery), and he carries a high salary-cap number, so his place isn’t secure.
Meanwhile, Smith is a prospect the Packers are high on, but returning from reconstructive surgery is always a process, and Jones could try to parlay his 12 starts (including playoffs) into a new contract for a starting job elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent. Jones was one of the team’s leaders on special teams before taking over as a starter on defense, so he could return in his old role and compete for the starting job, or he may see what the market will bear.
Elsewhere at inside linebacker, Robert Francois and Jamari Lattimore were special-teamers only in 2012, as they finished second and fourth, respectively, on the team in coverage tackles but rarely if ever played from scrimmage. Last but not least is Terrell Manning, who like Smith a year ago, could be an intriguing prospect.
Manning, a fifth-round pick whom the Packers traded up to draft last year, battled an intestinal virus in his rookie training camp that essentially knocked him out of any competition for playing time. By season’s end, however, he was making an impact on special teams and will benefit from the Packers’ offseason program more than any other player in this group.
At outside linebacker, the search continues for an every-down bookend opposite pass-rusher extraordinaire Clay Matthews, who led the team by a wide margin with 13 sacks in the regular season (no one else had more than 4 ½) despite missing four games. Matthews also had three of the defense’s four sacks in the playoffs.
The Packers invested a first-round draft pick last year in Nick Perry with the idea that he’d complement Matthews, but the defense only saw the combination at work for six games before wrist surgery prematurely ended Perry’s rookie season.
Perry struggled early on in pass coverage – the one duty of the position that makes for the toughest transition for a college defensive end – but his crunching sack of Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck that forced a fumble (and drew a questionable flag and fine) is an image that carries loads of promise.
Another promising young player is Dezman Moses, who went from undrafted free agent to part-time starter in the second half of the season. He showed the most flash as a pass rusher with four sacks, but rounding out his game by improving against the run and in coverage is the next step.
The two outside linebackers who came out of nowhere to aid the Packers’ Super Bowl run in 2010 have some questions about their future. Frank Zombo struggled through a second straight injury-plagued season and was a healthy playoff inactive at season’s end, while Erik Walden turned in his finest season as a pro, despite getting benched during the playoff loss at San Francisco.
Walden, who shared starting duties with Moses down the stretch, recorded three sacks (plus a fourth in the playoffs) and two interceptions in a contract year. His situation is similar to Jones’ in that he might see what the free-agent market looks like, though it’s not a given he’ll leave. There’s better film of him for the Packers and other teams to evaluate than the nationally televised gaffe of turning his back on Colin Kaepernick as the 49ers QB ran 56 yards untouched for a TD, but that obviously wasn’t the best of final impressions.