EDITOR'S NOTE: Please welcome Eric to the Acme Packing Company writing staff. Eric is an accomplished fantasy football analyst who hosts the High Stakes Fantasy Football Hour podcast and has been writing and blogging about sports and the Packers for several years. We look forward to his contributions to APC in a variety of forms.
Perhaps no sport exemplifies the "next man up" philosophy better than professional football, And the Green Bay Packers are exemplifying it now with a new starting inside linebacker. With the potential release of Desmond Bishop — coming off a season-ending ruptured hamstring injury — the Packers are expected to insert "next man up" Brad Jones in the middle alongside veteran A.J. Hawk.
Jones is less than three months removed from signing a three-year $11.75 million dollar contract with Green Bay—a rare free agent signing for Packers general manager Ted Thompson—which probably says quite a bit about what Thompson thinks of the futures of both Jones and Bishop with the Packers. But with Jones now assumed to be a starter on the defense, some of the Green Bay reserves may have to take on bigger roles in 2013.
Clearly the most experienced player of the young group is fourth-year veteran Robert Francois. The 6’2" 250-lb undrafted free agent has played mostly on special teams throughout his professional career but did gain valuable starting snaps when he filled in for an injured Hawk in 2011. Francois played in 11 games that season—starting two—and for the first time in his career appeared in all 16 games in 2012. The former Boston College Eagle is a solid, if unspectacular, player who can be counted on to deliver workmanlike production in a pinch, but he’s certainly not a playmaker and should not be relied upon in a starter’s role for multiple games.
Green Bay will be hoping that another undrafted free agent, linebacker Jamari Lattimore, takes a step forward in his development as he enters his third year in the NFL. Lattimore, a 6’2" 237-lb former defensive end at Middle Tennessee State, has also mostly been a special teamer for the past two years. However, Lattimore’s pass-rushing skills (20.5 sacks in just three years at MTSU) on the surface make him seem better suited to backing up outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. With defensive end Mike Neal working there during organized training activities, though, Lattimore could be ready to make an impact on the inside if injuries dictate him playing there.
Second-year linebacker Terrell Manning is an intriguing player that Ted Thompson traded up to select in the 2012 draft. The N.C. State product is the same size as Lattimore, but is still a bit raw, having only played in five games his rookie year. Manning, however, may be the biggest playmaker of this group. As a three-year starter for the Wolfpack, he compiled 10.5 sacks, snagged five interceptions, forced five fumbles and recovered five more. With the type of gambling, turnover-forcing style that defensive coordinator Dom Capers has orchestrated in Green Bay over the past few years, Manning would be in his natural element if he can adjust to being a starter in the NFL when called upon.
The wild card of the backup linebackers is rookie Sam Barrington out of South Florida. The 6’1 235-lb seventh round pick mostly played outside linebacker for the Bulls, but Green Bay has him slated to play the inside at the pro level. Barrington was a tackling machine and was a second team All-Big East selection in 2012. His 80 tackles in 2012 were second-best on the team, and Barrington, at the very least, should be a solid tackler on special teams as a rookie. Transitioning to the inside year one should cost him any shot of being a difference-maker in the middle in 2013 though, and that is assuming he makes the opening week roster in the first place.
Bishop was a clear-cut, ready-made NFL starter with a few years of backup experience under his belt when the Packers needed him to fill former linebacker Nick Barnett’s starting spot. This year Green Bay does not have the luxury of having that next star waiting behind the starters. Jones is not the thumper that a healthy Bishop was, and yet he stands head and shoulders above the backup inside linebackers on this team. As long as Jones stays healthy, the Packers won’t remain completely soft in the middle, but if either he or Hawk goes down, Green Bay will probably run into the same issues they had last year in trying to stop the run. Thompson is still looking for the real "next man up" at inside linebacker, but he may have to wait until the 2014 NFL Draft to select him.