The following is the sixth installment in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster position by position. The series continues with the linebackers.
GREEN BAY – Two questions regarding the Packers’ overhaul at inside linebacker were answered during OTAs this spring.
First, Clay Matthews will continue taking some snaps inside, just as he did in the second half of 2014. Matthews’ inside-outside versatility is a tool Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers appears interested in using even more extensively this season.
Second, one starting job in the base defense belongs to Sam Barrington heading into training camp. The third-year South Florida product stepped into the starting lineup late last season and didn’t disappoint, a big reason the Packers didn’t hesitate to move on from last year’s Week 1 starters, A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones.
Training camp will decide how many additional options Capers has inside for different packages he may want to employ.
The competition for roster spots and/or playing time will center on fourth-round draft pick Jake Ryan, converted outside linebackers Carl Bradford and Nate Palmer, practice-squad holdover Joe Thomas, CFL and IFL product Josh Francis and undrafted rookie Tavarus Dantzler.
Ryan was thought to be an immediate starter as soon as the Packers drafted him out of Michigan, but the decision to continue working Matthews inside takes some of the pressure off Ryan to be ready immediately.
A fourth-round pick last year, Bradford moved to inside linebacker in the final week of training camp and then was basically given a redshirt year as a gameday inactive all season. Palmer, a sixth-round pick in 2013, is coming back from a season-ending knee injury and began making the transition inside this spring.
A player to watch could be Thomas, who made a strong initial impression last year as an undrafted rookie from South Carolina State. A knee injury landed him on injured reserve during the preseason, he was re-signed to the practice squad at midseason, and now he has a full offseason in Capers’ defense under his belt.
Outside linebacker is where the Packers have more veteran depth.
Julius Peppers is back for a second year after an impressive debut in which he was the playmaker the Packers envisioned upon signing him as a free agent. In the regular season and postseason combined, Peppers recorded 9½ sacks, six forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Veterans Mike Neal and Nick Perry also return after combining for 7½ sacks a year ago. Both missed the bulk of the offseason recovering from injuries, though, which opened the door to prospects Jayrone Elliott and Adrian Hubbard getting more snaps from scrimmage during OTAs.
Elliott made the roster last year as an undrafted rookie and was one of the team’s leading tacklers on special teams. Making a bigger impact from scrimmage is his next step. Hubbard spent last season on the practice squad and earned positive reviews in the spring.
Also at outside linebacker, Andy Mulumba returns from a season-ending knee injury and looks to build on his solid rookie year of 2013, while LSU’s Jermauria Rasco and Stanford’s James Vaughters are jumping in as undrafted rookies from big-time college programs.
Countdown to Camp: Position-by-position roster series