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.
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.