Yesterday, Devin did a great job explaining why the Green Bay Packers' defensive line is the position group that needs the most help in the draft this year. Normally, Devin and I are pretty well on the same page when it comes to analyzing the Packers' roster, but in this case we're not all that close together. I agree that the defensive line needs help, but I think that the Packers' linebackers are of greater concern.
Let's start at outside linebacker and take a look at the players currently on the Packers' depth chart. It starts with Clay Matthews on the right side, with Nick Perry as the likely 2013 starter on the left. Dezman Moses is the only other player at that unit currently under contract for 2013; Erik Walden will be an unrestricted free agent, while Frank Zombo and Rob Francois will be restricted free agents this off-season. That's not much depth at a key position in a 3-4 defense.
Aside from Matthews, who will most likely continue to play at a Pro Bowl level barring injury (knock on wood), each of the remaining players has serious questions surrounding him. How will Perry rebound from a season-ending injury, and will he continue to progress in his role as a linebacker? Moses on the other hand will need to prove that he has more to his game than just a speed rush, as he will undoubtedly look to become a more complete linebacker this off-season. At this point, I feel that Walden's play down the stretch ensured that he won't be back next season. Nor do I expect Zombo to return, though I think Francois should be back for his special-teams contributions.
This year, there are a number of talented prospects at outside linebacker who could step in and make an impact despite not being a starter. Alec Ogletree is one possibility as a first-round pick, but it's a pretty deep class this year with players like Arthur Brown of Kansas State, John Simon of Ohio State, or Brandon Jenkins of Florida State potentially being available in the second or third rounds.
The Packers' inside linebackers aren't in a whole lot better shape, as that unit was decimated by injury this season. Desmond Bishop will likely return as a starter, and his primary backup D.J. Smith will be back as well. A.J. Hawk remains as the other starter, but because of his contract and (at best) average play, it would not be a surprise to see him cut for financial reasons. Terrell Manning and Jamari Lattimore remain signed for 2013 but Brad Jones, who stepped in for Bishop and Smith, will be an unrestricted free agent.
Once again, there are major questions here. Bishop is coming off a major injury, though all signs point to him being ready for training camp. There's the eternal question about Hawk's return, given his contract. If Hawk is cut, who takes his place? Smith has only played Bishop's inside linebacker position and would need time to adjust to the other spot. Manning and Lattimore have shown minimal ability on defense, and were used primarily as special teamers, while Jones is no lock to return despite his impressive adjustment to the inside this year.
While I agree with Devin that finding a long-term solution at the nose tackle position is critically important for the future of the franchise, the fact is that the position is at least somewhat stable for 2013 with Ryan Pickett returning. The inside linebacker spot is much less settled, and could be much more of a critical need if Hawk is released. The issues with outside linebacker depth are crucial as well, and I argue that they balance out equally with the need for better depth at defensive end. Ultimately, I feel that the Packers' greatest need for the 2013 season is across the board at linebacker.