In this series we take a close look at the Green Bay Packers 90-man roster on the verge of training camp and discuss each player’s chances of making the final 53.
The Green Bay Packers enter the 2014 season with nearly the same group of inside linebackers with which they began the 2013 season.
While most fans expected the Packers to make some changes at a position many perceive to be a weakness on the roster going into the 2013 offseason, Green Bay stood pat and did not make any big moves to bring in more talent.
Now, it is difficult to say if this was because the Packers strongly believe in the players currently on the roster or if it was because the Packers didn’t want to reach in a draft very weak at inside linebacker.
Regardless, the Packers are moving forward with relatively the same group that anchored the middle of their defense last season.
A.J. Hawk is the ever-durable presence leading an up and down defensive unit. Brad Jones is still relatively new at the position and still hasn’t hit his stride as an inside linebacker.
Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington both have flashed promise and offer a physical playing style that serves as a stark contrast from the savvy, cool-headed approach of starters Jones and Hawk.
The Packers also brought in a handful of undrafted rookies who could bring some competition to the position.
However things play out at the position, the Packers need to improve a run defense that allowed 125 yards per-game and finished 25th in the league last season. Improving against the run starts with the inside linebackers.
INSIDE LINEBACKER (7)
Safe: A.J. Hawk, 6-1, 242; Brad Jones, 6-3, 242
For the fifth time in his eight-year career, Hawk led the team in tackles with 118 in 2013. In fact, Hawk is now tied with only Nick Barnett in franchise history for the most seasons as the team’s leading tackler.
Hawk has started every season since being in the league, accruing 824 tackles, 18.5 sacks, and nine interceptions. He is also only two full seasons away from eclipsing the all-time franchise mark for career tackles, held by John Anderson with 1,020.
Even more impressively, Hawk has only missed two games in his eight years due to injury. The Ohio native has not only been a durable cornerstone of the Packers defense for several years now, he’s also been the captain and leader on the field.
He’s responsible for calling all the audibles and making sure everyone is lined up on defense. Not an easy job with such a young roster and injuries bringing about so many lineup changes throughout the season.
In 2013, Hawk had perhaps his best season as a pro. He finished second on the team in snaps with 1,014 and recorded a career-high five sacks and 16 quarterback pressures.
Hawk not only showed he could be an effective blitzer, but he also showed a lot of improvement in pass coverage–a part of his game that wasn’t always a strength.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hawk graded out as the top Green Bay defender in pass coverage (+6.1) and ninth among all NFL inside linebackers.
Going into last season, Hawk slimmed down to around 235 pounds to gain some agility and speed on the field. The move helped him cover quick backs and athletic tight ends in space, making him a true three-down player.
However, did the weight loss come at a price?
A slimmer Hawk also meant he would give up some bulk, which may have hindered his ability in taking on big offensive guards against the run.
Even though Hawk showed gains in pass coverage and pass rush, he did not grade out well in run defense, according to Pro Football Focus. With a -15.1 grade against the run, Hawk finished second-to-last out of all Green Bay defensive starters in this category.
Watch any game last year and you’ll see Hawk sticking his noise in the middle of piles and chasing down ball carriers outside of the tackles. Hawk is a more than willing tackler and does well reading and reacting to running lanes opening up on the offensive line.
Here’s the problem. Hawk isn’t the type of linebacker who can hold the point of attack against bigger offensive linemen and bang inside, at least not the way Desmond Bishop used to.
He, as do the other Packers linebackers, need the big guys up front to occupy the blockers so they can swarm to the ball. All of the Packers linebackers run defense grades were down in 2013 - Mike Neal, Brad Jones, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry.
In my opinion, this was a result of the poor play from the defensive linemen. Raji had his worst season as a pro in 2013 and was completely pushed around at the line, and Pickett and Jolly both wore down as the season progressed. Early in the year, it was a different story, and coincidently, Green Bay’s run defense ranked much higher.
The concerns over Hawk’s game brought up by fans and media are overblown, and in my opinion, reflections of the shortcomings of the defensive linemen’s struggle to keep their linebackers clean against the run.
Granted, Hawk may not be a physical force in the middle of the field, but he’s reliable, savvy, and gives everything he’s got. Hawk isn’t the problem with the Packers defense.
Similar things could be said about Jones, whose fan response is just as polarizing as Hawk’s.
Jones came on strong in 2012 taking over for an injured Bishop. The Packers felt confident enough in Jones’ ability as an inside linebacker to let Bishop go and not draft an heir apparent the following year.
Jones may not be the most popular guy in Green Bay, but his coaches and teammates speak highly of him.
Before Jones got injured in Week 6 last year, he was off to another solid season. He was the Packers’ leading tackler through the first four games and showed a natural knack both against the run and as a blitzer, recording a sack and six pressures.
However, after suffering a hamstring injury against Baltimore, Jones missed three games and returned in Week 9 not quite the same player.
Jones struggled down the stretch and continued to have issues with the hamstring. He did finish the year third on the team in tackles with 84 to go along with three sacks and a forced fumble.
Jones didn’t have the stalwart performance he did in 2012, but Green Bay is hoping Jones will bounce back in 2014.
While many still consider inside linebacker to be a weakness on the Packers roster, Green Bay appears confident in the starters they have at the position.
Perhaps, as fans, we were too quick to hit the panic button at inside linebacker.
On the Fence: Jamari Lattimore, 6-2, 237; Sam Barrington, 6-1, 235
Lattimore took a big step forward last year and may push either Jones or Hawk for playing time this season.
Since arriving in Green Bay in 2011 as an undrafted free agent, Lattimore has made an impact as a special teams ace, but now, he may play a bigger role on the team in 2014.
Last year, Lattimore was the Packers top reserve inside linebacker, playing 272 snaps from scrimmage and earning four starts with Jones sidelined because of injury. On the year, Lattimore recorded 35 tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble. However, in a three-game stretch where he started in the place of Jones (Weeks 6-8), Lattimore graded out better than any other Packers defender on the field, according to Pro Football Focus.
He led the team in tackles with 12 in Week 7 and showed he can be a stout run defender. Lattimore plays with a high motor, and even though he struggled at times in coverage, shows a lot of upside as an inside linebacker.
What’s exciting about Lattimore’s game is there is still a lot of room for him to grow. The fourth year player out of Middle Tennessee still hasn’t hit his ceiling.
He could very well challenge Jones for the starting inside linebacker job by the end of camp, or in the very least, see more snaps from scrimmage, especially if the coaches are looking for a little more punch from the position.
Lattimore doesn’t shy away from contact and isn’t afraid to drop his shoulder and deliver a big hit. Admirable characteristics for a Packers defense needing to get a little meaner.
Barrington could be the inside linebacker that surprises everyone and really makes a push in camp this year.
The Packers liked Barrington’s physical style of play when they drafted him in the seventh round out of South Florida last spring. After a strong preseason as a rookie, recording 15 tackles and a sack, Barrington beat out 2011 fifth-round pick Terrell Manning for a roster spot.
However, Barrington only played one snap from scrimmage on defense in 2013. He contributed on special teams for the first seven games of the season, but then in Week 9, Barrington suffered a hamstring injury and Green Bay placed him on injured reserve for the rest of the year.
In college, Barrington was known for his fiery playing style. He recorded over 250 tackles as a four-year starter. He made plenty of explosive plays on the field, tallying 21.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, and five forced fumbles.
Barrington hits like he means it. He brings a physicality to a defense that the Packers have been missing on the inside since Desmond Bishop departed.
In Lattimore and Barrington the Packers have two physical players that could bring some punch to the middle of their defense. However, both players are young and need to show growth, especially with the mental side of the game, to unseat either Jones or Hawk as starters.
Long Shots: Jake Doughty, 6-0, 234; Joe Thomas, 6-1, 227; Shaun Lewis, 5-11, 226
The Packers are thin at inside linebacker and that leaves room for one of the three undrafted rookies to make a case for the final roster.
Doughty was a tackling machine as a two-year starter at Utah State, tallying over 250 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, and three sacks. Doughty also has decent speed (4.56) and athleticism. He played well in coverage for the Aggies and is a developmental prospect that the Packers might want to keep around.
Thomas was South Carolina State’s leading tackler in 2013 with 115 stops. He also recorded an impressive 19.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, showing an affinity for making impact plays on the field. Thomas is a bit undersized for the position, but his frame has room to add weight without losing any explosiveness.
Lewis started all four years at outside linebacker for Oklahoma State, finishing with 75 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and three interceptions in 2013. The versatile linebacker also earned All-Big-12 honors as a senior.
Doughty, Thomas, or Lewis could earn a roster spot with a strong camp and be an immediate special teams contributor.
The Packers only keep four inside linebackers on their final roster – A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore, and Sam Barrington – and they sign Jake Doughty to their practice squad.