20

February

2013 Packers Position Group Analysis: Inside Linebackers

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.

(Note: Listen to the combined linebackers podcast at the end of this article:)

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.

Listen to the podcast using the player below or download the podcast from the Packers Talk Radio Network on Itunes.

Listen to internet radio with Packers Talk Radio Network on Blog Talk Radio
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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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27 Responses to “2013 Packers Position Group Analysis: Inside Linebackers”

  1. [...] in for this expanded coverage of the original Packers Linebackers Position Group Post  and much, much [...]

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  2. Lucas says:

    I completely agree with the line, “…shallow separation of skill between the starters and the back-ups”. When very little drop-off is seen when a back-up plays, it says a lot about the starter.

    Ron Wolf used to say something to the effect of, you already know this guy can’t play, so why keep him? That doesn’t quite apply to Hawk, but the idea is there.
    The question is, would Jones be a drop off from Hawk for what some estimate will cost roughly half the price. Would it be accurate to say Hawk is worth twice as much as Jones? Also, does the management trust in Jones dependability and reliability?

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    • ThomasMagnumPI ThomasMagnumPI says:

      Isn’t Hawk currently pulling down about $7.5 million/year? I don’t thing Jones will come close to drawing half of that salary.

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      • Lucas says:

        Cutting Hawk will only save GB $5.45 million. His salary for 2013 is $4.9 million. He can add incentives of about 550k. Re-signing Jones will likely be about $2.3 million or $2.8 million.

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        • Ed Schoenfeld says:

          Cutting Hawk saves 5.45 million only if you do it after June 1. You are forgetting to accelerate the remaining pro-rated signing bonus (about 3.0 million).

          The perception that Hawk’s contract is outrageous is also false. The top salaries at ILB run up to 10 million. Hawk’s 5.45 is about at the median (and thus appropriate to his level of play as a starter).

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          • mike sherman says:

            Just because $5.45 (which is what we save not what Hawk’s salary is) isn’t completely outragous doesn’t mean that should keep him off the chopping block. The biggest reason why the Pack are consistently one of the top teams is because TT keeps a deep, talented roster. In order to do that we don’t give 7 million a year contracts to guys that can easily be replaced like Darren Colledge (look out tramon williams ur next). The fact that we can trim over 5 mill off the cap and likely get better at the position is a no-brainer. The only reason Hawk is on the team is if DJ Smith’s ACL is in terrible shape and Bishop still can’t run on his hamstring. This is the Packers and we aren’t one of the best teams every year because we keep 7 million a year LB’s that can’t force a takeover and only play on first and second down.

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          • Lucas says:

            Ed.: Is the June 1st date part of the new CBA?
            Cutting will accelerate his 300k for next year and 1.6 million total for the next two years. By my math, that’s only 1.9 million.

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          • Klausen says:

            Here’s some examples of way(!!!) better players with comparable contracts:
            Navorro Bowman at ~6.6 mil average
            Patrick Willis at ~7.6 mil average
            Paul Posluszny at ~7.5 mil average
            Daryl Washingon at ~5.3 mil average
            Curtis Lofton at ~5.5 mil average
            Desmond Bishop at ~4.7 mil average

            Hawk has ~6.7 mil average, btw..

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  3. ThomasMagnumPI ThomasMagnumPI says:

    Very good article. It helps when I agree with your position!

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  4. Mike Sherman says:

    good article guys! I do think that middle LB will be addressed in the first 3 rounds of the draft, other than maybe WR, i don’t see a bigger hole on the roster right now. The best way to improve the defense is for the existing, younger players to improve. The 2nd best way to improve our D is to get a big, strong, fast middle LB that can go side line to side line, force turnovers, cover, and thump a RB trying to run up the middle. I don’t see a position that needs more of an upgrade than the LB spot next to Bishop…. I just hope there is a prospect in the draft that TT thinks is worth taking.

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  5. Why not a linebacker at #1? If Hawk had 118 tackles, we gave up about 600 yards. We need someone to control the line of scrimmage and make some takles in the backfield much like a young Barnett did. Upgrading that position would upgrade the defense immensely. There are a few guys there that might be dropping to our spot.

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  6. Ron LC says:

    With the Jets cutting Bart Scott there is a potential to get a NASTY to play next to Bishop. By dropping Hawk it could be doable. The question is do the Packers want to drop Hawk? For some reason the coaches like him. Even though he doesn’t seem to make sense to us fans, MM and the boys are loyal to a fault whne AJ is concerned.

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    • Stroh says:

      Funny you mention Bart Scott… here a little on what Scott and Hawk are required to do in a 34 D.

      ““Jack Inside Linebacker: His entire job is to keep the Mike ILB clean; by keeping the Mike clean, the Jack’s sole responsibility is to take on the offensive guards and keep them away from his running mate. He needs to be very strong at the point of attack – a downhill thumper if you will. It’s a dirty and underrated ability, but keep in mind that there’s a reason Rex Ryan made Bart Scott his first big free agent signing. Scott excelled at this job in Baltimore, and he’s now a big part of the Jets’ defensive success, despite the modest statistics.”

      Big thing is to take on blockers and keep the other ILB clean to make plays. Hawk is underrated by fans cuz they see him coming off blocks to make tackles, but thats his JOB and if he doesn’t do it, then the weak ILB isn’t going to be free to make plays! Hawk is a little overpaid, but he was coming off a very good season and the Packers had noone who could do Hawks job nearly as well.

      If we release him now, we probably aren’t going to find a better ILB to do Hawks job. Other ILB in the draft won’t be able to lead the D and there is no guarentee a draftee would perform that job better.

      If we release Hawk, Bishop has to slide over and then I would have Manning playing the weak (playmaking) ILB spot. Thats easily the best and most likely option. Either way I’m guessing Hawk stays for one more year.

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      • mike sherman says:

        understand what your saying Stroh but I can remember past the last 2 years. Hawk was drafted to play the weak side LB in a 4-3, because that was the play making spot. Barnett was the MLB who supposedly took on blockers so that Hawk could make plays, yet their statistics from their years together are very similar, barnett even had more takeaways in 2008. Obviously he isn’t a play maker so he takes on the thumper role by default. Thumpers are not hard to find and they don’t get paid like the playmakers. Brad Jones can take over AJ’s role, chase down runners better and actually cover a TE or RB out of the backfield…. and he would cost maybe half as much. Nobody has to slide anywhere if we release hawk, Bishop will stay at the weak ILB and we can easily find someone to take on blockers, maybe even get a takeover

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        • Stroh says:

          Barnett played MLB in a 43 scheme, where the DL occupy the OL so the MLB can get to the ball carrier. Hawk was drafted to play weak OLB in a 43, but he didn’t prove to be the playmaker we envisioned, nor that his college and combine numbers suggested. When we moved to the 34, Barnett became the weak ILB that got to run to the ball and Hawk being the bigger, stronger of them, was moved to the Strong ILB and became good at that job. So while he didn’t live up to expectations, its clear the Packers found a position he could play well. Brad Jones is too soft to take on that role IMO. He is more of the weak ILB (where he played last year). Really the only ILB, other then Hawk that is physical enough to play Hawks position is Bishop. That would leave the weak ILB job to Jones, Manning or Smith. Of those I think Manning would easily be the best of the group. I think Hawk is a little overpaid but I think he makes it another year, to make sure Bishop and Smith return and give Manning time to learn a little more. I do think Hawk is the best at taking on blockers and allowing the other ILB to make plays. Clearly, it would be nice if he made some game changing plays.

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  7. ELo says:

    AJ is very reliable when you need a third guy in on a tackle, unless its in pass coverage.

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  8. Lars1 says:

    So tired of analysts saying things like “Hawk had one of his best seasons.” That’s utter nonsense. His best seasons were as a 4/3 OLB. Getting 118 soft “tackles” (including the famous Hawkian assists) after the opposition has gained 8-10 yards is meaningless. He’s a pile jumper.

    Factor in Hawk having zero int’s, zero FF’s, and zero passes defensed and you begin to see how much the Packers’ bloggers cover for this guy.

    Hawk’s a two-down player, costing $7 million against the cap. You cut him after June 1, without giving it a second thought and get manning, a rookie, Jones anybody in there who plays with a little passion.

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  9. Scott 1956 says:

    Bishop is the real deal. He can light runners up, and he can make tackles behind the line. Hawk is good at all! Smith needs to be looked at this pre-season, he could be worth keeping. Jones? He had a few good games as outside LB and he started. Then everybody saw that he wasn’t very good. So this year they had injuries and then put Jones in, and he had a couple of good games. But he isn’t an inside LB! The rest are just guys. A couple will make the team because you can’t replace 4 LB’s in one offseason.

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    • Stroh says:

      Jones is easily a better ILB than he is an OLB. If he stays he should be a backup for Bishop. Or if Bishop takes over for Hawk, then Manning and Jones can battle for the other starting job. Smith is a backup at best. His size is a major liability in coverage and vs the run.

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  10. Stroh says:

    Its unfortunate the lone ILB in this draft that is a big time playmaker, Ogletree got a DUI and is now probably entirely off the Packers draft board. If ever there is a year to break the mold and take a chance on a guy, Ogletree would be it. He is exactly what this team needs at ILB. A guy that can cover TE, run sideline to sideline making plays and get after the QB.

    Te’o and Minter are good run stuffers, but IMO are no better than Hawk. Minter especailly is strictly a 2 down ILB. They aren’t playmakers or nearly as explosive as Ogletree.

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    • ThomasMagnumPI ThomasMagnumPI says:

      Maybe the time to take a chance on a guy with a 7th round pick would have been last year, by drafting that mental case Vontaze Burfict. He had a very productive year with the gang of degenerates known as the Bengals, and they got him as an UFA.

      I’m pretty confident that guys like Ogletree and Burfict will manage to mess up at some point, but it’s alot easier to deal with an idiot UFA than it is a 1st-round pick IMO. Then again, it’s all about risk-reward, and maybe guys like Ogletree and Te’o would be worth the risk at the back of the 1st round.

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  11. SDPackfan says:

    Excellent analysis across the board.

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  12. [...] want to hinge the success of an entire unit on a rookie that was taken late in the first round?  We talked about the linebackers in a recent podcast and looked at draft prospects.  Kevin Minter out of LSU is a clear top choice at this position.  [...]

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