Position Analysis: Linebackers

In honor of the signing of 7th round draft choice OLB Brad Jones, it seemed a good time to look ahead at the linebackers. And this post does have another boring post title. I do try and spice up the post title on Twitter.

This group was the biggest disappointment last season. There was the promise that LB A.J. Hawk and LB Nick Barnett would make a bigger impact last season, but instead each had his worst season as a pro.

Now the Godfather, Dom Capers, is in town. He's brought with him the 3-4 defense, moved DE Aaron Kampman to outside linebacker, and GM Ted Thompson drafted OLB Clay Matthews to revamp the starting lineup around Hawk and Barnett.

Running defense in 2008. They were 7th worst last season allowing an awful 4.6 yards/carry. They also allowed a 1st down on 26.4% of opponent's rushing attempts; "good" for 3rd worst. They also seemed to collapse at key times last season, such as the overtime loss at Tennessee when the Titans just ran right at them on their first O.T. possession to set up the game losing FG. 

As much as they linebackers were part of a bad run defense, Hawk and Barnett deserve credit for their contributions to a very good pass defense.

The run defense was ranked 29th overall by Football Outsiders. The run defense was clearly bad and deserved the bad ranking, but it was good in 2007 (and great in 2006) so it can rebound.

Starters:
OLB Aaron Kampman. The former Pro Bowl defensive end has not said much about his transition to outside linebacker. Mitchell and I have been wondering whether moving him to linebacker is such a good idea. Despite his great career so far, he might be the biggest question mark going into 2009. I expect he'll play on the strong side (over the right tackle) because that is where he played on the defensive line.

ILB Nick Barnett. He was a mystery last season. He was on pace to record his lowest season totals for tackles, sacks, and interceptions before a week 10 knee injury at Minnesota ended it. I have no idea why he slipped so much last season. And now he has to rehab from knee surgery too. As far as I can tell from his Twitter, his rehab is going just fine and he's anxious to get back on the field. At age 28, he should still have some good seasons left in him. I'm looking forward to watching Barnett circa 2003-2007 return in 2009.

ILB A.J. Hawk. He was hurt during training camp and never seemed 100% the rest of the season. It wasn't clear what was bothering him, but based on S Atari Bigby's recent comments, the Packers might have been hiding the full extent of it. His stats dipped in 2008 compared to 2006 and 2007, but the injuries seemed to be his problem. Hopefully he stays healthy and takes a big step forward in 2009.

OLB Clay Matthews. I'm looking forward to seeing him on the field. I would guess he's similar to Hawk, but he's slightly taller and lighter which might make him better suited outside instead of Hawk.

Backups:

LB Brady Poppinga. I've been complaining about him for three seasons and he's finally moving to the bench. But he's not going anywhere because he was just signed to a 4 year extension last July. He'll be asked to be the new special teams ace and probably backup at outside and inside LB.

LB Brandon Chillar. 2008 wasn't a spectacular season, but he was solid. He always seems to be a step behind the play, which was probably why St. Louis didn't fight hard to keep him after the 2007 season. He's got two more years left on his contract, and I don't expect him to go anywhere. He'll probably backup at outside linebacker.

LB Jeremy Thompson. He spent his entire 2008 rookie season at defensive end, but just like Kampman, he's being asked to convert to linebacker. I was expecting he'd have an uphill battle to keep his roster spot due to the switch to the 3-4 defense, but when Matthews sat out with OTA practice with a hamstring injury, Thompson was his backup.

Those seven players should make the 53 man roster, but I expect the Packers will keep eight linebackers (plus another linebacker on the practice squad). So at least two players out of the group of Cyril Obiozor, Danny Lansanah, Brad Jones, Desmond Bishop, and Spencer Havner will make it. Bishop probably has the inside track since he appeared in 15 games (1 start) in 2008, but he hasn't shown a lot of promise either. We'll just have to wait and see them in the preseason.

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