The Packers’ situation at linebacker can best be divided and conquered this way: There’s an embarrassment of riches on the inside, and the need for one more playmaker on the outside.
For the upcoming draft, that puts finding another outside rusher like Clay Matthews, if possible, much higher on the priority list than fortifying the inside depth behind A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop, even if financial realities force that depth to take a hit in 2011.
Hawk and Bishop both earned new contracts after last season, which saw them take on greater roles than expected when Nick Barnett (wrist) and Brandon Chillar (shoulder) were lost early to season-ending injuries.
Hawk, a first-round draft pick in 2006, went from an early-down run-stopper replaced in the nickel defense to the every-down signal-caller and leading tackler. Bishop, a sixth-round find in ’07 who (impatiently, he’d admit) waited his turn, went from a super-sub and special teamer to an assignment-sure regular and active blitzer. Without the two most seasoned veterans of the group – Barnett’s career began in ’03, Chillar’s in ’04 – the defense didn’t miss a beat and Head Coach Mike McCarthy said recently that Hawk and Bishop would begin 2011 as the starters.
In a perfect world, the Packers could keep this impressive quartet together and not worry one whit about the position, but the NFL is not a perfect world. With Hawk and Bishop getting new deals and Barnett and Chillar also carrying pricey, multi-year contracts, the new collective bargaining agreement’s presumed salary cap could preclude devoting that much money to one position.
The good news is the Packers should be able to afford to keep three and have at least one polished veteran as an inside backup. The question is whether all four will be kept through training camp to protect against injury as long as possible, or if the odd-man-out decision will be made earlier. What General Manager Ted Thompson might be able to fetch in a trade could answer that.
Looking further at the depth chart, another veteran backup on the inside in 2010 was Matt Wilhelm, who is scheduled to be a free agent. A reserve/special teams equivalent on the outside is Diyral Briggs, while practice-squad linebackers Cardia Jackson (inside) and Curtis Young (outside) are new and weren’t signed until December.
At the starting outside spots, the search for a true complement to Matthews continues. Thompson selected Matthews 26th overall in 2009 by making the boldest draft-day move of his tenure, trading his next three picks (a second and two third-rounders, after drafting B.J. Raji ninth overall) for another bite at the first-round apple.
The move has paid off handsomely, as Matthews has compiled 28 sacks in 36 career games (including playoffs), made two Pro Bowls and finished runner up in the NFL defensive player of the year voting in 2010.
Another pass-rush threat like that on the other side of Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme could make a formidable Green Bay defense downright scary, and plenty have been given the chance to audition.
Last season, five outside linebackers aside from Matthews started a game – Brady Poppinga, Brad Jones, Frank Zombo, Robert Francois and Erik Walden – but whether it’s because of injuries, age or both, all are still out to prove their long-term staying power.
The most productive of the group in 2010 were Zombo, an undrafted rookie who posted five sacks, including one in the Super Bowl, and Walden, an off-the-street midseason signee whose three-sack game in the regular-season finale earned him NFC defensive player of the week honors.
Both dealt with injury issues at different times, but their play was a testament to the coaching acumen of Capers and position coach Kevin Greene. So was the 2009 emergence of Jones, who as a rookie seventh-round pick posted four sacks as Aaron Kampman’s injury replacement. Jones started five of the first seven games in 2010 before a shoulder injury shelved him the rest of the way.
Should all the candidates return healthy and hungry in 2011, competition and natural growth could produce the permanent upgrade the Packers are looking for.
Another young prospect added to the mix, particularly one selected in the draft’s early rounds, could enhance that process even more.
Mike Spofford is a 1995 Masters graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University who worked as a sports reporter for two daily newspapers in Wisconsin, covering the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Spofford has been a packers.com staff writer since 2006.