In this next installment of our 2011 Draft Prep series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ needs by position, we are going to analyze how the inside linebacker position currently stands. Strengths, weaknesses, depth, and uncertainties will all be examined to determine the urgency of need in regards to next season.
This series is meant to help us figure out the needs of the team and how the draft could be used to improve the weaker areas. While Ted Thompson largely uses the “best player available” (BPA) approach, his decision to trade up or down the board is affected by what position players he would prefer to have. Additionally, the picking up of players in the later rounds and in undrafted free agency is often based on need, since the talent is less defined.
#50 A.J. Hawk
27 yrs. old / 5 yrs. exp.
Signed through 2015
#55 Desmond Bishop
26 yrs. old / 4 yrs. exp.
Signed through 2014
#56 Nick Barnett
29 yrs. old / 8 yrs. exp.
Signed through 2012
#54 Brandon Chillar
28 yrs. old / 7 yrs. exp.
Signed through 2013
#49 Rob Francois
25 yrs. old / 1 yrs. exp.
Signed through 2012
#48 Cardia Jackson
22 yrs. old / 1 yrs. exp.
Signed to reserve/future contract
#57 Matt Wilhelm
30 yrs. old / 8 yrs. exp.
* Contract information acquired from RotoWorld.com
As it stands right now, the Packers are stacked at the inside linebacker position.
Nick Barnett is a well-seasoned veteran whose hair is almost as big as his reputation. He was a starter for Green Bay from day one, and has been an anchor at the position for the past eight years. He led the team in tackles for five of those years, set the single-season franchise record with 194 tackles, and ranks third in franchise annals with 986 career tackles.
Then there’s A.J. Hawk, the Packers’ top 2006 draft pick who finally seemed to make his mark this season with Barnett out of the picture. For the first three years, fans became increasingly frustrated with a performance that belied his first-round draft status. Finally, we have seen that his communication skills, good study habits, and great work ethic were a gigantic asset to the team. And for his efforts, Ted Thompson rewarded Hawk with a brand new five-year contract.
The third of these green and gold Musketeers is Desmond Bishop, the team’s own Chuck Norris (at least according to his Twitter fans). Bishop is not the most fundamentally sound player, but his instinctive and fiery style of play makes him a force to be reckoned with. Fans will not soon forget his interception of Brett Favre and the crushing sack of Tom Brady this past season. His efforts were also rewarded with a four-year contract extension signed in January.
With this much talent in the group, there is no question that the Packers have their starting inside linebackers set for next year.
Brandon Chillar seems to be the odd man out of this group. After four years starting with the St. Louis Rams, Chillar was picked up by the Packers in 2008 and had a very solid first year. Unfortunately, despite signing a four-year, $22.65 million contract in 2009, his production has declined since then. He played in only 8 games in 2010, which is down from 12 games in 2009 and 14 games in 2008.
Though his time on the field last season was cut short due to a rotator cuff injury, his performance up to that point was disappointing at best. Considered the team’s best cover linebacker, he didn’t really live up to that reputation.
If Chillar wants to earn that $2 million plus in 2011, he’ll have to prove his worth in the offseason.
The big elephant in the room that has had nowhere to go since the lockout is Nick Barnett’s future with the team. Once A.J. Hawk secured his own long-term deal with the Packers, Barnett seemed doomed.
The problem is that Barnett has a few things working against him. First and foremost, he ended two of his last three seasons on injured reserve, missing 19 games in the process. Second, he hits the benchmark age of 30 next month. Third, his personality has become a distraction at times. And finally, he’s slated to earn over $6 million in 2011.
With Hawk and Bishop each having the inside track at starting next year, Ted Thompson and the coaches have to determine whether Barnett’s services are worth the price to keep him.
Of course, you also have to wonder about Brandon Chillar’s future with the team. If the Packers end up renegotiating Barnett’s contract and keeping him around, then that could spell more trouble for Chillar. His price tag, though not as exorbitant as Barnett’s, warrants more than just back-up level production.
Finally, there’s a slight concern about the depth of the position. Rob Francois has been on and off rosters since he came into the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings, so there’s definitely some doubt about how he would perform even as a back-up. Matt Wilhelm is most likely out the door, and there’s not much on Cardia Jackson to even form an opinion.
URGENCY OF NEEDS: Medium / Low
If the lockout and labor dispute weren’t currently in full swing, we might actually have a clearer picture of the inside linebacker situation. But one thing is for sure: the Packers will not be looking for any starters here.
Hawk and Bishop have each been locked up in new contracts and will probably be the primary players next season. So even if both Barnett and Chillar leave, the most the Packers will need to do is look at adding depth. And if at least one of them stays, then they might only be looking for one more back-up player to add to the position.
That said, I see the needs for this position as moderate to low, and even then more on the low side. This is one of those situations where Ted Thompson might just try to fill the roster with current players and undrafted free agents. He knows he has his starters, and there’s no way he’ll be able to work out the situation with Barnett before the draft.
It’s clear the inside linebackers won’t be much of a concern right now.
*** For further reading, check out “According to Hobbes: Packers Offseason Primer on the NFL Combine: Inside Linebackers” by Thomas Hobbes. ***——————Follow @ChadToporski