Packers Inside Linebackers: If nothing else, the 2012 team showed us how deep we are at inside linebacker. After losing two starters in Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith, the Packers were still able to keep things together with Brad Jones in the lineup. The caveat, however, is that while the group is deep, there are no real “blue chip” players to be found.
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Where are we now:
Here are the current suspects:
A.J. Hawk (1st Round, 2006)
Desmond Bishop (6th Round, 2007)
Brad Jones (7th Round, 2009)
Robert Francois (UDFA, 2009)
D.J. Smith (6th Round, 2011)
Jamari Lattimore (UDFA, 2011)
Terrell Manning (5th Round, 2012)
For all the talk of the deficiencies at defensive line and outside linebacker, we seem to forget about the fact that inside linebacker is leaving us with something to be desired. It’s not a horrible group by any means, but there’s also nothing special about it. Desmond Bishop is currently the best player of the bunch, A.J. Hawk isn’t worth his contract weight, D.J. Smith was a bit of a disappointment this year, and despite his solid play, Brad Jones wasn’t much of a playmaker either. Terrell Manning seems to be the current roster’s last shred of hope among an otherwise lackluster crew, but he needs to make it onto the field first and foremost.
- Hawk: Even though A.J. Hawk had one of his best years in 2012, it was still not great. He’s no Vince Young when it comes to first round busts, but he lacks the playmaking ability and athleticism you would expect from a player drafted at his position. His work ethic and football intelligence have kept him around for seven frustrating years, though it’s clear his salary will be more than his worth in 2013. The Packers could save $5.45 million in cap space by releasing Hawk.
- Bishop: It’s hard to believe that Desmond Bishop will be going into his seventh season in 2013, because it took him so long to gain a starting role. His lack of consistency held him back until Nick Barnett’s season-ending injury in 2010. Since then, he has proven himself to be a hard-charged thumper that brings an attitude to the defense. More of a red chip than a blue chip player, he is easily the best inside linebacker on the squad right now.
- Jones: With all the waffling around on the roster Brad Jones has done, it’s been difficult to really assess his abilities. Originally selected and groomed as an outside linebacker, he finally made a name for himself in 2012 when taking over on the inside. To play as well as he did “out of position” is a testament to his football skills and professionalism. Pro Football Focus has him as the second-highest rated linebacker among free agents, and it’s clear the Packers would prefer to re-sign him.
- Francois: There’s not much upside to Robert Francois as an inside linebacker at this point. He seems destined to be the special teams / back-up player that usually end up filling out the rosters. All of his snaps were with the special teams units in 2012, though he did see some playing time in 2011 with Hawk injured. In coverage, his zone skills are much better than his man skills, and he showed difficulties with controlling the point of attack in run support.
- Smith: The jury is still out on D.J. Smith. He performed well in 2011 during the few games he started; however, he didn’t live up to the hype in his six starts this past year. With his size, he’s somewhat limited to the weak-side role, working more in space and not needing to be the thumper that a strong-side ILB generally is. Pass coverage is Smith’s stronger suit, though he’ll need to keep developing in all areas to become any type of impact player.
- Lattimore: Only his second year, Jamari Lattimore has some room to grow. He missed a few weeks of playing time at the beginning of the year due to an ankle injury, but by the postseason, he was voted as special teams captain by fellow players. Like Francois, Lattimore’s career might end up being played out as a back-up with core special teams duties. Depending on his development, he would probably be utilized more as a strong-side ILB on the defensive side.
- Manning: The future is wide open for Terrell Manning. An unfortunate illness caused by a stomach parasite robbed him of essential training during his rookie year. He also dealt with a shoulder injury during the months of November and December. Despite being a fifth round pick, many draftniks and fans see a lot of potential in Manning. There’s hope that he’ll turn out to be the big playmaker at inside linebacker, but as of right now, we don’t have much to go on outside of his college career.
Where we want to be:
As mentioned above, there is a good amount of depth to this group. Back-up players have proven their worth across multiple opportunities, which can’t really be said for the rest of the defense, outside of maybe cornerback. The problem is that this perception of depth is also built on a shallow separation of skill between the starters and the back-ups.
If playmakers are added elsewhere among the defensive front, then there actually wouldn’t be a lot to worry about with this group of inside linebackers. They can afford to be good instead of great, because the defense will balance itself out. Simply speaking, the lineman would control the gaps while the outside backers would add the pressure, and the inside linebackers would be left to clean up duty. In a 3-4 defense, that can be a successful setup.
However, the Packers don’t currently have that. And if they don’t get it, then the inside linebackers will need to be the group that steps up its game. We’ve heard the complaints about the “soft underbelly,” and that is in part due to the inside backers’ inability to cover the middle. They’ve shown that they can clog up the running game, yet they’ve also shown they have problems covering running backs and tight ends for any significant length of time. What the Packers could really use is an “athletic” inside linebacker who can move laterally and pick up the underneath receiving threats, as well as follow the seam routes down the middle.
How do we get there?
If I were Ted Thompson – which thankfully I am not – the first thing I would do is release A.J. Hawk. Not only does it free up cap space for overall management purposes, it also frees the Packers of some “dead weight.” I’m not saying Hawk is useless, but it’s time to move on. He’s maintained his starting role thanks to a knowledge of the system, an ability to run the defense on the field, and consistent performances. However, if the Packers want to get better, then they can’t be perennially tempted to fall back on “old reliable.” Let some new blood in and see what they can do.
After Hawk is gone, I would start OTA’s and training camp with Desmond Bishop at SILB, while D.J. Smith and Brad Jones compete for the WILB role. Terrell Manning will be the wild card, hopefully proving his worth as he gains experience and refines his technique. His development is probably the best chance of a significant improvement at the position. (Jamari Lattimore is another possibility, yet more of a long shot.)
As far as the NFL Draft goes, it’s a challenge to find defensive players that will make an immediate impact, especially on defense, since a lot of it relies on knowledge of the scheme. Thompson would better be suited by looking for an inside linebacker in the middle to later rounds or in rookie free agency, since he will need to use the earlier picks for more pressing concerns. For as much as we want to see some improvement at inside linebacker, it’s not as high on the overall priority list and can perform adequately with the personnel it currently has. That said, if a guy is there for the pick, then by all means the Packers should take him.
The best free agent option at this point is Dannell Ellerbe, who played with the Baltimore Ravens. In 2012, he recorded 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Though he is an unrestricted free agent, the Ravens might try to resign him as a replacement for the now-retired Ray Lewis. Ellerbe’s weaker point is his pass coverage, so while he might be an upgrade over Hawk, it still doesn’t address the specific hole in the Packers’ ILB unit.
Aside from the draft and free agency, the only other hope is a trade of some sort. Unfortunately, trades aren’t as common in the NFL as in other sports, and teams aren’t willing to part with high-caliber players, especially without some sort of serious compensation. And we all know Ted Thompson isn’t about to overpay for a player, no matter how good he is.
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