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Eye on the ILB's

by Mike Conklin

E-mail: mikeconklin@packerpedia.com
June 2, 2012

 

The inside linebacker position is a tough place to play in today's NFL. Traditionally thought of as run stuffers, these players find themselves in a rapidly evolving pass-first league. Opposing offensive coordinators do everything they can to isolate these players in the passing game and keep them on their heels, yet they still have to be able to shoot the gaps and stack the run.

As the Packers look to shape their roster, the wild card may be that Dom Capers and Winston Moss could have some specific packages in mind that some players may be better suited for than others. When you take into account that the Packers spent valuable draft picks on Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, two players that seem to be suited more for sub packages, it appears that the Packers defense may be evolving into a variety of specialized packages designed to stop the different offenses they face.

This is not necessarily new for the Packers. When Brandon Chillar was on the team, some game plans featured him much more than others, depending on the opponent. The Packers really liked the versatility that Chillar offered at inside linebacker, and he would likely still be on the team if shoulder injuries hadn't ended his time in Green Bay. Of the young players, both Terrell Manning and Jamari Lattimore seem to have a similar combination of skills that Chillar offered: fluid coverage skills, yet also a slippery ability to rush the quarterback. Considering what he did in the past with Chillar, Capers may be looking for very specific skill sets for some of his sub packages. If that is the case, it will likely influence the decision making process when it comes to filling the roster.

As the 2012 offseason progresses, the Packers have seven players that will compete for four likely spots. We will take a brief look at each of those players:

Desmond Bishop was a revelation after Nick Barnett was lost for the season in Week 5 of the 2010 season. Until that point, Bishop had turned heads during training camp, but had never really had a chance during the regular season. Bishop stepped in and contributed to the defense immediately. Week after week he made tackles, and during the Super Bowl run he had the 2nd most postseason tackles of any NFL player. Whether intercepting a Brett Favre pass and returning it for an interception to seal a victory against the Vikings, or scooping up a fumble at a crucial moment in the Super Bowl, Bishop just has a knack for big plays. Although he does have some deficiencies in pass defense, Bishop appears to be the best all around inside linebacker on the Packers defense right now.

A.J. Hawk, on the other hand, is one of the most criticized players on the defense. Although much of the criticism is justified, he was far from the biggest problem last year. In previous years, when players played better around him, he played much better himself. It is easy to forget that not too long ago, he appeared to be a rapidly ascending star who finished third in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. Although he may not be one of the best players in the NFL, he is still among the elite athletes. At the scouting combine when he was a draft prospect, he posted a 40-inch vertical leap (rare for a linebacker), and ran the 20-yard short shuttle in 3.96 seconds, still a combine record for his position. Hawk may never live up to what fans may hope for from a fifth overall draft pick, but if he is surrounded by the right talent he has proven that he can be a key part of a winning defense. The coaches love his steady presence and ability to play through injuries.

For many Packer fans, D.J. Smith was a bit of a head-scratcher when he was drafted in the sixth round out of a small school (Appalachian State) a year ago. At only 5'10" and considered a borderline draft prospect at best, he lacked the size teams look for in their linebackers. But Smith was a very productive player in college and was used to proving doubters wrong, and all he did was go out an impress the team with a gritty training camp. Considering there was no offseason program last year and he had to learn everything on the fly, it is remarkable that he not only made the team as a rookie, but even helped the Packers stay the course when Hawk and Bishop went down to injuries and he had to step in. When he was in the lineup he made some noticeable plays, and the team seems to be intrigued with his ability.

Often overlooked, Robert Francois seems like the kind of player that perennially has to scratch and claw his way just to try to make it on the bottom of a roster. Interestingly enough, he was originally signed by the Vikings as an undrafted free agent after the 2009 draft. A few months later, he was the player the Vikings let go to make room on the roster to sign Brett Favre. He bounced on and off the Packers practice squad a few times throughout 2009 and 2010, and after injuries knocked out Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar, he was finally elevated to the Packers roster and hasn't looked back. Fans didn't really think much of him one way or the other until he was pressed into action after Hawk and Bishop were both injured, and Francois had to start two games. Francois filled in adequately, and even grabbed a couple of memorable interceptions last year. He gives the impression of being a rangy player more suited to play on passing downs than some of the other players at his position. Reliability is important to the Packers, and Francois seems like a steady, reliable player.

With all the additions all across the defense, the Packers decided to move Brad Jones from outside to inside linebacker. After having been drafted in the seventh round in 2009, he has started 13 games in his three-year career so far, so he has a good deal of on-field experience. He never took the job and ran away with it, however, and the Packers drafted the player they expect to be their future starter at that position in Nick Perry. It appears that Jones will get one last shot with the Packers as an inside linebacker, and it appears to be a bit of a long shot. Jones has some speed, however, and he seems to be one of those guys that is hard to cut. He will have to really shine if he wants to make the team for a fourth year.

The other player that has been moved inside this offseason is Jamari Lattimore. Although Vic So'oto got more fan recognition last season thanks to a few shining moments in the preseason, Lattimore might have been the more intriguing prospect. At 6'2" and 230 pounds, he lacked size and was only a special teams player last year. Now, he has bulked up 10 pounds and is excited about the new challenge of moving inside. Considering that he impressed the coaches enough to make the team as an undrafted free agent despite the lack of offseason last year, he can not be easily ruled out to make the team. He turned heads in training camp last year, and now that he knows the playbook and is bigger and stronger, he hopes to turn heads again.

The new player added to the mix is Terrell Manning, the fifth round draft pick out of N.C. State. After flashing big play ability in a major conference, Manning was projected by many to be a third round pick. He dropped into the fifth round, at which time Ted Thompson couldn't sit back any longer and traded up to get him. He came out after his junior year, during which he had 5.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss, and three interceptions. Former Seahawks scout Bucky Brooks had this to say about the newest member of the unit: "Manning is an underrated playmaker with big-time talent. He started to flash dominant ability near the end of the season, and could quickly outperform his draft status in Green Bay." Considering the fact that the Packers traded up to get him, he will be given every chance to succeed.

Last year, this position may have had the least depth on the team. When Bishop and Hawk were injured, the Packers flirted with disaster. Now, a season later, the Packers will have to cut players that will likely be signed by another team. Oh, what a difference a year makes.