Currently the Packers have an interesting problem on their hands at the inside linebacker position. A high profile starter and former first round pick currently occupies one of the two spots and another former starter is coming back from injury expected to take the other spot. Yet, there is one or two younger players who many feel would be better suited for at least one of those positions. Of course I’m talking about A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop, and Brad Jones. Hawk has disappointed the last two years for the Packers and has now taken a pay cut; he presumably should stay with the team as a result. Bishop is coming back from injury and promises to add a bit more physical play to the center of the field for the Packers defense. Jones is coming off a very good year coming in for long term relief of Bishop and D.J. Smith, and had the best year out of all the ILB’s for the Packers in 2012. Smith also is returning from injury after starting some of the early games of 2012. The question now becomes which two should start?
This is not a new question for the Packers. Last year many were pining for Smith to push Hawk in training camp before Bishop’s injury problems began. Smith had an impressive span of games in 2011 when Bishop was unable to play. During this time Smith seemed to bring a speed and playmaking ability that Hawk just could not. Before this, Bishop was buried on the depth chart while Nick Barnett occupied a starting position, which some believed had more due to his draft status than his play on the field.
The simplest solution to this problem is to have an open competition in training camp. Competition can bring out the best in players and it should lead to an improvement to a position group that has been a liability as of late. A competition should also help the Packers sort through a rather crowded ILB group with Hawk, Bishop, Smith, and Jones…as well as Robert Francois, Terrell Manning, and Jamari Lattimore. While these final three players were focused on special teams in 2012 each has some reason to believe he could be adequate depth…or even push for a starter’s role should the right set of circumstances arise. Francois played well for a small stretch in 2011 when Hawk went down with an injury. Lattimore spent last year transitioning to ILB from OLB, but was still an early stand out in training camp. Manning was a promising rookie who was set back due to illness and injury last year; given a good offseason of training he may be able to turn heads. If the coaches allow a good honest competition between all five then they should be able to find some sort of improvement from last year’s group.
Unfortunately history suggests that a competition may not be as open as preferred. Bishop had to wait for Barnett to go down with a season ending injury before he received meaningful snaps despite routinely wowing in the preseason and earning the nickname "Mr. August." Smith looked to be buried on the depth chart as well last year until Bishop’s injury. It may not be unreasonable to expect the same for Jones this year, despite the apparent upgrade he should bring in pass coverage over Hawk or Bishop.
Ultimately Packer fans will need to trust that Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers can find the right balance of talent for the inside linebacker group. Even if the Packers don’t address this group in the draft, there looks to be plenty of players and talent to build from for 2013. If they can find this balance, then hopefully the defense can better respond to the growing challenge teams put to the middle of the field with receiving tight ends, slot receivers, and the run option offense.