Who do the Green Bay Packers Start at Inside Linebacker?
Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk (50) gestures before the snap against the San Diego Chargers during the first quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
The Green Bay Packers received a moderate surprise when Brad Jones re-signed on Thursday.
Jones, who had spent the better part of 2012 starting alongside A.J. Hawk at inside linebacker, had interest from as many as eight teams. With Green Bay negotiating a pay cut from Hawk and bringing back Robert Francois, it was generally believed Jones would leave for greener pastures. But Packers GM Ted Thompson was patient, and after the “stupid money” dried up, there was no better opportunity for Jones than a return to Green Bay.
Suddenly, the Packers find themselves with a logjam at inside linebacker. Desmond Bishop (hamstring) and D.J. Smith (ACL) return from injured reserve to challenge youngsters Jamari Lattimore and Terrell Manning along with the aforementioned Hawk, Jones, and Francois. Of that group of seven linebackers, five have started for Green Bay before.
As one might expect, there’s considerable uncertainty over which players will end up in the first unit.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman (5) looks for a receiver as Green Bay Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop (55) closes in at Lambeau Field. Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
Desmond Bishop has been Green Bay’s best inside linebacker when healthy. However, despite tearing his hamstring in the first week of the preseason, Bishop’s injury was severe enough to dissuade the Packers from using their IR return designation on him. Predictably, Bishop’s agent, Blake Baratz, has said Bishop is ahead of schedule in his recovery and should be ready for training camp. That remains to be seen, but Bishop is the team’s best option if he’s available.
Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk (50) puts pressure on Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
A.J. Hawk has been the whipping boy for fans, yet a coaches’ favorite for years now. While his play has never been spectacular, Hawk had one of his best seasons in 2012. It was largely for that reason that the Packers negotiated a cheaper deal rather than giving Hawk his outright release. At the time Hawk’s pay cut hit the newswire, it was assumed that he’d return to his spot on the first unit with the other inside linebackers competing for Bishop’s spot. Now with the speculation that Brad Jones returned for more money, one has to think Hawk’s spot is up for grabs as well.
Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Brad Jones (59) breaks up a pass to Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte. Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports
The play of Brad Jones was one of the many pleasant developments of the 2012 season. After shifting between positions several times over his first few years, Jones finally found a home at inside linebacker. There, Jones’s superior coverage ability and athleticism allowed him to excel. After taking over for D.J. Smith following the Houston game, Jones played the most snaps of any linebacker. Most significantly, Jones became the inside linebacker in the nickel defense and was given the radio helmet for play call relay. While Bishop and Hawk are officially ahead on the depth chart, it would surprise me if Jones wasn’t starting come week 1.
Green Bay Packers linebacker D.J. Smith (51). Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
The rest of the inside linebackers are muddled together. D.J. Smith, a late round pick due only to his 5-11 stature, was a reliable run defender and solid tackler in his first stint as starter. Smith struggled in coverage, however, and the team greatly improved when Jones took over for him following his ACL tear. Robert Francois has developed into an important special teams member, but hasn’t shown to be exceptional in any one area of defense. He’s a solid backup, but nothing more. Jamari Lattimore’s first two training camps invited several comparisons to a young Desmond Bishop, but like Bishop he won’t become a contributor until he becomes more consistent. Terrell Manning is the wildcard of the group. Ted Thompson traded up in the fifth round to acquire Manning. Had a stomach virus not knocked out his rookie year, Manning might have displaced Jones (who was still adjusting to the position at the time) for the slot behind Smith on the depth chart).
Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
With no clear frontrunners, and at least six players in contention, inside linebacker will host the most interesting position battle of training camp. While two may grab hold of the starting slots and never relinquish them, the specialized talents of the players may result in more situational use of the linebackers. Because of this, Brad Jones (best in coverage, experienced with play call duty) will probably find his way into the starting lineup. If he’s healthy, Bishop is not only the best overall player in the group but also the strongest complement to Jones. That would leave seven-year starter Hawk on the sidelines and perhaps place him on the market, but it’s too early to dig into that scenario.
Given the depth at inside linebacker, it’s not out of the realm of possibility defensive coordinator Dom Capers dusts off the old “Psycho” package to get more of these players on the field. Having the right linebackers on the field could help curtail the read-option which puzzled Green Bay last season.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Lombardi Ave. He has previously written for Hail to the Orange, College Hoops Net, Mocking the Draft, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JBHirschhorn.