This is the seventh in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to the 2015 draft. The series continues with the linebackers.
GREEN BAY – The Packers’ immediate need at inside linebacker is no secret. A potential upcoming need at outside linebacker could be no less important.
The release of veterans A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones has opened the door to revamping the inside linebacker spots in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense during this draft.
Third-year pro Sam Barrington (pictured) made his move last year, stepping into the starting lineup for the final five games of the regular season and both playoff contests. He recorded double-digit tackles three times and had a sack in that span.
If Barrington continues to make progress, it’s easy to see him holding down one of the starting jobs. The other would be open to a number of developmental prospects, including any inside linebackers brought in during the draft. If the right one falls to the Packers at the 30th overall pick, it might be the perfect marriage of value and need in the first round.
Whether or not that happens, using more than one draft selection at inside linebacker is a distinct possibility.
Of the young holdovers, Carl Bradford may be the greatest unknown. A fourth-round pick last year at outside linebacker, Bradford moved inside late in training camp and then was a gameday inactive his entire rookie season. He will get his chance in year two.
So will Joe Thomas, signed as an undrafted rookie last year from South Carolina State. Thomas was off to a solid start in training camp before a knee injury sidelined him. He was placed on injured reserve toward the end of camp and then re-signed to the practice squad midway through the season.
The most recent addition at the position is Josh Francis, signed last month. The West Virginia product spent time last year in both the Canadian and indoor leagues.
There’s always a chance Clay Matthews could play some inside linebacker again, depending on what transpires. Matthews may have saved the run defense in 2014 with his shift inside on run downs after the bye week, but long term he’s needed at his primary outside spot as a pass rusher.
The Packers have plenty of veterans to pair with Matthews on the outside this year, but Julius Peppers, Nick Perry and Mike Neal are all in the final year of their current contracts. There’s no telling who or how many will remain in Green Bay beyond 2015.
While Matthews once again led the team last season with 11 sacks (plus another in the playoffs), Peppers, Perry and Neal combined for 14½ more (plus 4½ in the playoffs) as the Packers rotated a number of different combinations to keep players fresh.
With the future of those veterans uncertain and outside linebacker such a key position in Capers’ defense, draft reinforcements would seem likely, though the cupboard isn’t bare.
The Packers also have Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer returning from season-ending knee injuries. Mulumba showed a lot of promise as an undrafted rookie in 2013, but nothing can be certain health-wise until he gets back into full-contact work.
The Mulumba of 2014 was Jayrone Elliot, an undrafted rookie from Toledo who made the roster on the strength of a five-sack preseason and flashed some potential while becoming a special-teams regular.
Yet another undrafted rookie from last year, Alabama’s Adrian Hubbard, also returns after spending all of 2014 on the practice squad.