It seems right now the problems at inside linebacker are the opposite than the problems on the outside for the Green Bay Packers. Earlier Evan broke down the OLBs, pointing out that there is some real talent at the position but not many bodies. At ILB there are plenty of bodies, but questions about what the expectations should be for this particular group. Each of the ILBs on the Packers' roster have questions dogging them, whether it is injury, disappointment, or just having a low ceiling due to physical limitations. In a year where the defense had some high profile failures in the run defense, these questions are exacerbated and will bring extra scrutiny to the unit as a whole.
Players signed through 2013:
A.J. Hawk is the poster boy for this group. He has played the most snaps out of all of these players the last three years and always seems to have the same questions surrounding him year in and year out. The best way to sum up A.J. Hawk at this point is that he came into this league with people thinking he would be the next Brian Urlacher or Lance Briggs but instead has played to the level of Chad Greenway. This doesn’t mean that he’s bad, he’s just not great and he’s not a playmaker. So it’s true that the Packers could upgrade here, but the cold reality is that it’s going to be harder than many think.
One more side note about Hawk, specifically his contract. There is going to be lots of talk about Hawk, how he is paid too much and how the Packers could save all sort of cap money by cutting him. According to spotrac.com Hawk is going to be paid $4.9 million in 2013 for his base salary and have a total cap hit of $7,050,000 for 2013. Kevin Seifert of ESPN has reported though that cutting Hawk would only save the Packers $2.25 million in savings for the cap due to $4.8 pro-rotated signing bonus which would accelerate if Hawk would be cut. Now, this particular signing bonus could be pushed back a year, but the cap penalties would still come one way or another. Now, let’s compare this against Greenway’s contract and cap hit. Once again according to spotrac.com, Greenway is due $6.9 million for his base salary in 2013 and will have an $8.7 million cap hit. This means the Packers are actually paying less for Hawk’s services than Greenway’s, even though they are roughly of the same ability. Personally this points to the Hawk situation as being much less a tragedy than many make it out to be and a bit more of what the market would sort out for a LB of Hawk’s quality.
While Hawk still deals with the expectations of his draft status, Bishop deals with questions of his health. Bishop is coming off a significant hamstring tear that ended his 2012 season before it began. The main question for Bishop is going to be is health upon his return. If he can be the same player that he was in 2011 then the Packers should have a solid linebacker in run defense and a skilled blitzer…but Bishop can struggle in the passing game.
Like Bishop, Smith is recovering from a season ending injury as well. Unlike Bishop, Smith has additional questions about his size. One of the common themes of the Packers’ needs up front is bigger and faster. Smith really is neither of these things. He’s a bit undersized for the position and struggled against more physical backs like Frank Gore early in the season. Smith was a player with high expectations coming into 2012 and this offseason will be telling to see if he can compete for a starting spot or become a career backup.
The last three linebackers are light on experience but each presents an interesting question. Lattimore was impressive in camp last year but failed to make an impact beyond special teams during the season. Another year at the ILB spot will be good for him or a move back to OLB may be interesting considering the severe lack of depth behind Nick Perry and Clay Matthews. Terrell Manning was a rookie so many were excited by but a painful illness in training camp set him too far back to make any real in 2012. The Packers stuck by him and still have faith in him. If Manning can stay healthy this offseason and put back on some of playing weight then he may be a pleasant surprise next year. Johnson is practice squad player who has bounced around the league including stops with the New York Giants, Miami Dolphins, and Cincinnati Bengals. Given his size (6-2 265 lbs) and his number (94) he may be expected to play on either in the inside or the outside.
Position Grade: B-
The position group has an interesting mix of talent and depth, but is lacking greatness. Hawk is solid and is a capable starter in this league, but he’s not going probably never going to be the best LB in the league. Bishop has an interesting upside if he can be healthy but there are some key gaps in his game. Smith has a good motor but is small and can struggle with larger opponents. It’s hard to gauge realistic expectations for the rest. This grade could go up to a B or B+ if the Packers manage to resign Brad Jones who was probably their best ILB last year but is currently set to become a free agent.
Need Grade: 7 (out of 10):
While an upgrade over Hawk or any of the others would be nice, it’s hard to say that this is more pressing than the need to upgrade the offensive or defensive line. It would be great if a high value player fell into the Packers’ lap at 26, but it’s not the end of the world if the team moves ahead with its current group and focuses its resources elsewhere.