2012 Packers Position Group Analysis: Linebackers

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Packers Linebacker Clay Matthews III
Packers Linebacker Clay Matthews III

Packers Linebackers: We’re back with the second of this series where we’ll examine each Packers position group as it currently exists. We’ll be addressing three main points from the Packers’ perspective: where we are, where we want to go and what we need to do to get there.

Where are we now:

Here are the current suspects:

Clay Matthews (1st round)
A.J. Hawk (1st round)
Desmond Bishop (6th round)
Brad Jones (7th round)
D.J. Smith (6th round)
Erik Walden (6th round – is a free agent)
Robert Francois (undrafted)
Frank Zombo (undrafted)
Vic So ‘oto (undrafted)
Jamari Lattimore (undrafted)

Much like the defensive line spot, Ted Thompson has built this position group from the bottom of the draft up. Eight out of ten players came from the 6th round or later. I suppose that’s a bit of a necessity in today’s salary-capped NFL, especially with salaries for offensive skill players going through the roof. But it’s still a bit startling when you examine a roster closely and really see how a team is built.

Let’s start with Clay Matthews: Matthews could have been nicknamed “Fast and Furious” his first two seasons, taking the league by storm with 23.5 sacks. While sacks get the attention, getting stops in the run game are almost of the same value to coaches. To that end, Matthews was certainly lacking. There’s no better evidence than the now famous sound byte from the Steelers’ sideline during the Super Bowl. A Steelers coach is heard telling his offense they’re going to run at Matthews all day, because all he wants to do is rush the passer – he doesn’t want to play the run.

2011 was a different type of year for Matthews, but it was still a success. Gone were the high sack numbers, as Matthews was double-teamed an average of 37% of the time in 2011, and had practically no pass rush help to draw attention away from him. But other parts of his game solidified. He improved both in pass coverage and against the run, intercepting three passes, leading the team in tackles for loss and was only charged with 7 missed tackles on the year (according to Bob McGinn). So while many fans asked “what’s wrong with Matthews?”, the answer of course was, “nothing.” All he did was become a more complete player.

Next we have A.J. Hawk, the lightning rod of Green Bay Packers players. Nothing elicits more disagreement among Packers fans than the topic of AJ Hawk (well, maybe Jermichael Finley…). You have the “cut him now” contingent of fans and you have the “AJ is fine” contingent, with  seemingly scant middle ground. Unfortunately for AJ Hawk, he was the fifth player chosen in the 2006 draft, which hindsight tells us was a huge reach. Still, Hawk made the ALL-NFL rookie team that year and looked to be a good young talent that would surely improve over time.

OK, so that didn’t happen. Hawk is valued by the Packers coaches for his reliability and ability to “run the defense.” But his actual performance on the field has been only average. He’s had his good moments and even good years (last season was not one), but he will always be judged by his draft position and the size of his contract. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hawk sticks one more season in Green Bay and then becomes a cap casualty when the Packers need to pony up for some of their big stars (Matthews, Jennings, Rodgers).

That’s it for the first rounders. We now drop all the way down to round six, where Ted Thompson found one heck of a bargain, Desmond Bishop. Bishop had the attitude to play LB from day one, but he didn’t have the understanding of the position. It took him a few years to get to where he stopped making bad mistakes and the coaches trusted him to be assignment sure on the field. Since that day, though, Bishop has run with the opportunity and never looked back.

The backups for Bishop and Hawk are an unlikely pair. Robert Francois has bounced around the NFC North, spending time  with the Vikings, Lions and Packers. He’s done about as much practice squad duty as you’re allowed to and has filled in here and there for the Packers, doing a pedestrian job with a few highlight moments.

Smith is a 5’11” linebacker, but he sure doesn’t play small. Smith has a nose for the ball and delivers a big hit whenever he can. He had a few good games and one sub-par game as an injury fill-in this season. I liked the pick when the Packers made it and still very much do.

That brings us to the carousel known as ROLB for the Packers.  It seemed like the Packers ran just about anyone out there at that position, but the player that got the majority of the snaps was Erik Walden. He won the starting job in preseason, and actually did fairly well in the first half of the season, especially as pass rush goes. Over the first nine games of the season, Walden had 2 sacks, 10 QB hits, and 14 QB Pressures (stats by ProFootballFocus.com). From that point on, his numbers fell off a cliff and his run defense continued to be what it always was, poor to below-average. Two weeks later, he would be arrested on suspicion of felony domestic violence. The rest of his season would not get any better.

The Packers looked for alternatives down the stretch. Frank Zombo, battling a series of injuries all season, saw some action in the last few games, including the playoff loss to the Giants. His impact was minimal at best, and he never showed the aggressive play he had displayed as an UDFA rookie. One has to suspect he was never really healthy, but the question remains, how much upside does he actually have?

Vic So ‘oto was given a look in the final two regular season games. He played aggressively and picked up a sack in the meaningless final game against Detroit, but also showed little against the run and still looked uncomfortable in coverage. Like all the rookies, So ‘oto was hurt by the lockout, but he’s one guy that I can’t wait to see with a full year of coaching.

Even Jamari Lattimore got into the act late in the season, seeing a total of 27 snaps in weeks 14 and 16. Lattimore is all about speed at this point, and hopefully is working doubly hard in the weight room this off-season.

And then, there was who I call “the forgotten Packer.” Brad Jones. My preseason prediction was that Jones would win the ROLB job. I was dead wrong. Instead, Jones languished on the Packers bench for fourteen games, finally seeing significant action on the Packers ROLB carousel the last few games. He took roughly half the snaps in the final two games, including the playoff loss. Jones picked up a sack in each of those games and played solidly overall. In their desperate search for a real pass rush, the Packers coaches forgot what they had in the steady but un-exciting Jones. After the season, McCarthy has been quoted as saying that Jones and Lattimore will have expanded roles next season, at both inside and outside linebacker.

So that’s where we are. Next let’s look at…

Where we want to be:

In one sentence: Just one player better than we are right now. This will be the third draft in a row now where I have been hoping for a bookend outside linebacker for Clay Matthews. I was not that disappointed the first time around (2010 draft), as the Packers had a pretty good contingent of linebackers on the roster (Matthews, Barnett, Bishop, Hawk, Poppinga, Chillar, and others).

Last season, however, I was sure the Packers would take an outside linebacker somewhere in rounds 2-4. Of course, not only did they not do that, the only ‘backer drafted was inside linebacker DJ Smith. Despite knowing full well how Ted Thompson operates, I was still pretty angry and disappointed. As the season unfolded, it was painfully obvious to me the Packers could have used a Brooks Reed more than a Derek Sherrod (although I had openly campaigned for Sherrod as Clifton’s future replacement).

Add a pass-rushing ROLB to this group and there’s little else to do. Jones and So ‘oto can be adequate backups, DJ Smith will continue to push AJ Hawk for playing time and perhaps an upgrade over Robert Francois is in order.

How do we get there?

At the risk of being disappointed for the third year in a row, I am once again calling for the drafting of an outside linebacker with pass rush skills. There are plenty of players that will be available to the Packers in rounds one and two that can come in and win a starting job over the current contingent. I don’t think that’s going out on a limb.

The Packers will also have plenty of maneuverability to move up in the draft in rounds two or three. With compensatory picks, the Packers should find themselves with twelve draft picks this year. I throw full support towards packaging some of their own picks to move up and grab an OLB they really like that may have fallen for whatever reason. Maybe move up in round two and grab Boise State’s Shea McClellin? That would make me happy.

The next option is free agency. What?  Stop laughing. Stop laughing right now.  OK, I admit I’m laughing too.

Erik Walden is a free agent. If they can bring him back real cheap, I would be all for it. Despite what it seems like the vast majority of Packers’ fans think, he had games when he was playing really well and was just a split second late to piling up some sacks. If he has his head on straight, I think he’s worth giving another chance.

Bring in five more UDFA linebackers and see if one pans out. While I’m admittedly being slightly sarcastic, if you look at how this linebacker group was built, it’s not that far out of the realm of possibility, now is it?

Look for another inside linebacker in rounds 4-6 to supplant Robert Francois.

Hope that Vic So ‘oto becomes the bomb.

 

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Jersey Al Bracco is the founder and editor of AllGreenBayPackers.com, and the co-founder of Packers Talk Radio Network. He can be heard as one of the Co-Hosts on Cheesehead Radio and is the Green Bay Packers Draft Analyst for Drafttek.com.

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  • Zack

    I like the Shea mclellin idea. Might be a nice alternative since vinny curry’s almost definitely going in the first after his pro day. It’s probably a realistic assessment of an approach we’ll take to the offseason. I’ll genuinely be pissed if we don’t get a 1st – 2nd round talent at lb and de this year… There’s enough talent available to get a legit guy. Also they need to do something with hawk if not this year after next year if he doesn’t perform up to his contract number which, let’s face it, he won’t.

    • Savage57

      They need to let Hawk play this year.

      Since he cut his hair, it will produce an “anti-Samson effect” and cause him to become an explosive, high-impact, game changing ILB.

      I know, I know, but hey at this point why not indulge in wild fantasy hope? Nothing else has made a difference.

  • Zack

    i meant lb or de not and. We might go center in1 or 2

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      note that if you create a login and use it, you’ll be able to edit your comments…

      • madman_8504

        I know but I use a smart phone a lap top and a pc so I don’t always log in. sometimes not worth it.

  • SchenySchen

    If I’m TT, I still pick Vinny Curry at 28, a D-lineman at 60 and then pick up an average center in FA as well as use a late 3rd or 4th on a Center project for the future. GoPack!

  • marpag

    I’m intrigued with the thought – unlikely as it may be – of acquiring Kam. Wimbley who was cut by OAK. 29 yrs old, and better than what we’ve got.

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      way too expensive for TT’s taste…

      • marpag

        Yeah, but almost all FAs are too expensive for TTs tastes.

        What are you thinking Wimbley will get, though? I’m not sure he’ll command as much money as a lot of people think.

        • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

          Well, his base was 11million, plus a boatload of bonus money. yeah, he’s too expensive…

          • marpag

            The key word in that sentence being “WAS”… Yeah, his salary WAS too high, and that’s why he got dumped. The real question, however, is “what can you sign him for now?” If he’s open to something in the neighborhood of 4 years at 5M average or less… well, maybe we can talk.

            • PackersRS

              The market would have to be awfully short for him to agree to -6MI per year.

              Don’t get your hopes up.

              • marpag

                I’m familiar with TT, so believe me, my hopes aren’t too high. :)

                But I do think the market for Wimbley may be a bit soft. We’ll see.

            • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

              that’s wildly unrealistic.

              • marpag

                Wildly? Maybe. Kirwan over at CBS thinks he’s worth 24M for 4yrs.

              • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

                just one opinion of many…

              • Steve Cheez

                Kirwan isn’t TT…

            • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

              He just signed with Tennessee. 5 years, 35 million.

  • Tarynfor 12

    I love the Draft and Develope and happy that TT DOESN”T indulge in the high end part of FA.

    However,there comes a time when as he did in 09′ with Raji and Matthews,to use the draft as your FA market.

    I love Curry and Reyes as the next draft combo to propel the Packers defense back to the SB year of 11′.
    There are other combos that would work also,but this IMO would be the more likely to swing based on projection of rd/pick value.

    • madman_8504

      I love the Curry and Reyes idea but I don’t think I’ve heard a solid way for us to move up that high. any ideas how that might happen?

      • Tarynfor 12

        I’m just an idea person…implementing is another story…thats what TT does…hope he reads this.LOL

  • Mojo

    Didn’t know there was an “A.J. is fine” contingent.

    • marpag

      I think he IS fine, performance-wise… it’s his salary that will eventually get him cut, and his draft position that makes so many people hate him. On the field, he’s serviceable. Not great, or even “really good”, but serviceable.

      If he had been a fifth rounder, people would love him.

      • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

        that’s it, exactly.

      • PackersRS

        VERY well said.

      • Oppy

        dingdingdingding, we have a winner!

        People should not hold a grudge against AJ Hawk- He’s an average to good ILB.

        People should hold a grudge against TT and the Packers’ scouting/personnel dept, for over-drafting, and then, over-paying AJ Hawk.

        He’s assignment sure and makes tackles. He’s a safety mechanism- He’s not going to knife through the LOS and blow up a play in the backfield, but he takes sure, low risk angles to make sure the ball carrier doesn’t get through to the secondary.

        He’s boring, and yes, overpaid. But teams need that guy to allow for the playmakers to take their risks.

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      see Mojo?

      • Mojo

        Ok, I guess there is a “Hawk is fine” contingent. Then I’ll have to disagree with them. And my opinion isn’t based on his contract or draft position, but his below average play. I think, for example, D.J. Smith would play at least as well with a lot more upside. And so would a lot of other ILB’s. I’ve waited six years for Hawk to produce but have come to the conclusion he never will.

        • Ron LC

          I’m not sure a lot of the AJ indecisiveness last year wasn’t part of the coaching scheme. That goes for Raji too. The more I look at some of the games it appears to me the aggressiveness in the middle of the line was delibarately restrained.

        • Zack

          I don’t think that anyone cares anymore what position Hawk was drafted at. It’s been long enough that we have mostly let go of our resentment toward him for that… if you were talking to me 4 years ago I’d say you have more of a point. But after he proved that he was not a play maker he was signed to a 6mil/yr contract… that’s what people are pissed about. so for the purpose of this discussion I’m going to just address his contract.

          I’ve heard most of the arguments as to why people think he is an ok player… the only thing we can’t account for is what he does in the huddle. Other than that I can say with certainty that I’ve watched him very closely for the past half decade and there is nothing that this guy does well. He’s below average most of the time accross the board. Some times he’ll elevate his play to average for a few games and that’s his hot streak, then back below mediocrity. Even as a play caller/ audible maker if you don’t perform durring the play then you might as well retire and become a defensive coordinator. He’s slow, indecisive, poor tackler, poor pass rusher, gets burned in coverage, etc. An acceptable starting ILB would be at very least a GOOD tackler, moderate speed, at least be a threat in the pass rush, and could cover some of the average tide ends in the league. Hawk falls short in literally EVERY category. There is nothing acceptable about this guy’s game. I’m pulling for Hawk this next season (especially because he’s almost certainly not going to get cut/traded), trust me I hope he does amazing. But this guy is not even an acceptable stand alone starter at this point let alone one of the highest paid players on the team.

          You have to admit that they have a point Mojo, his 6mil/yr contract adds to the distaste for his poor play. I’m not going with the Hawk is fine contingency and saying that’s the ONLY reason I don’t care for him but I can say that if he was making what he should be making (maybe 1/5 of what he is right now at most) I’d still be calling for an upgrade this offseason or saying bench him for the talent behind him but the reason I want him cut at this point isn’t only because of his poor play. The reason I want him cut is because if we commit to another year then we’re investing another 6mil into a backup caliber player. We need to cut our losses and move on. So when you guys say “the only reason people don’t like Hawk is because of his contract…” that may have some truth to it (it’s not completely true but there is some truth to it) but it’s not like that reason invalidates the point like you’re making it sound. Regardless of expectations, when you look at Hawk objectively he is not an acceptable starter, he’s a backup/ rotational caliber player. When you look at Hawk and his contract as a package it pushes him beyond the realm of he needs to be benched for the better talent behind him and places him into the he needs to be cut/ traded NOW category. There’s truth to both sides of this argument.

  • Pete Kliman

    I don’t feel strongly about any of the OLBs in this years draft. Even Ingram, who I think is a super athlete, is not a great fit for the 3-4.Wimbley would give us the immediate help we need and would allow us to draft an excellent center and/or DE. I think 3 for 21 and 10 guaranteed lures him.

    • PackersRS

      Let’s remember Wimbley was a HUGE bust in Cleveland’s 3-4 scheme. He played 4-3 OLB and DE in nickel at Oakland.

      • Pete Kliman

        That’s because he was the 13th player chosen in the draft that year. Even is #s in Clev. would be a big upgrade,especially when you consider his high QB pressures & hits.

      • Bearmeat

        Didn’t the Browns switch from a 3/4 to a 4/3 after Wimbley’s first year? (You know, the one where he got 12 sacks).

        That would explain the drop off if true…

        • PackersRS

          No, Holmgren traded him as one of his first moves. He played the 3-4 under Crennel and Mangini. The same 3-4, as both are disciples of Bellichick.

          I agree he would be improvement, but in the end it’s the same basic principle TT uses for FA, it’s bang for buck.

          Just too much cap space allocated to a production not correspondant with it.

          He might not use that principle regarding retaining his own players, but for FA it’s clearly there.

          • Oppy

            I thought I read that the year he tallied double-digit sacks was the year he played as a 3-4 OLB, otherwise he played some 4-3 OLB, and 3-4 DE…

            If this is accurate, sounds like he may be a threat as a 3-4 OLB…

            Doesn’t matter, he will not be in green and gold, I don’t think

        • PackersRS

          To compliment, Wimbley played there from 2006 to 2009. 4 seasons. And his last season he played under Rob Ryan, a different style of defensive scheme.

          He had 1 double digit sacks season, his rookie.

          2006 – 11.5 sacks (Tod Grantham/Romeo Crennel)
          2007 – 5 sacks (idem)
          2008 – 4 sacks (Mel Tucker/Crennel)
          2009 – 6.5 sacks (Mangini/Ryan)

          • Pete Kliman

            See the pattern there. His head must have been spinning with all those new coaches. Makes him even more valuable.

            • PackersRS

              No. Same scheme the first 3 years, then a relatively new scheme the last 1.

              Grantham/Tucker were much like Philbin. They had their worth and performed certain duties but the one who assigned players, designed plays and implemented those was Crennel.

              3 years in the same scheme, with decreased production throughout. Then 1 year where they tried moving him to utilize him best, so he played standing up and with his hands down like in college, with marginal improvement.

              Then 2 years in Oakland playing mostly on passing downs, with a very good front 7.

              And still, 6 years in the league, with continuity, and he had only 1 double digit sacks season.

              http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/W/WimbKa20.htm

              And his price is $11MI. If you think that’s worth it, congratulations, you’re the next incarnation of Al Davis.

              • PackersRS

                Or Bud Adams. Whatever.

  • john driscoll austin texas

    steelers coach says run at Matthews…well, he might force a fumble or make a play or 2…or, Packers coach says, Palomalu hair in eyes…just win game…Matthews had better year in 2011 even w/o sacks(or help)…all over the place…wish they could find a few more with that effort level..

  • packer nut

    who says wimbley was a bust in clevelands 3-4 scheme, if thats what they ran. have u checked his sat’s in cleveland. ave 6.5 sacks a yr.ave 61.5 tackles a yr. 16.5 assisted tackles a yr. 1 interception. 3 fumble rec. his numbers were almost the same in oakland. in my opinion he would b an upgrade to anything that’s on our roster.

    • PackersRS

      I said, I posted the stats before, those stats are a marginal improvement over what we have, not worth the money, and certainly a bust for the #13 overall pick.

    • packer nut

      what i’am sayin is he would b a improvement over any 1 olb we have on our roster. right now we used 4 olb and got 74 tackles 8 sacks 1 fumble rec. we’re tieing up 3 roster spots 4 guys that r ave or below ave players. if u could sign wimbley 2 a modest contract it would b worth it and free up extra roster spots.then we would’nt have 2 draft a olb in the 1st round. but tt won’t do anything like that so just wishful thinking.

      • Normthe1

        Dude,

        Not many of us can read txt language here, can you use punctuation and resist the urge 2 abrv8 pls?

        Thanks

  • BTF

    I’m guessing that the thinking between Jones/Lattimore inside is to try and get a more athletic ‘backer to cover tight ends and running backs ?

    If ,as we surely do, we draft a OLB probably 2 of the current bunch get cut (I’m assuming we keep 7 DL next year with Neal’s suspension and hence only 9 ‘backers). Be interesting to see who that is.

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      That’s my thought also on why they want other options at ILB.