If you look at any elite-level defense, you'll probably find a talented group of inside linebackers. The modern era of spread offenses has changed the way teams play defense, and it has put more pressure on an inside linebacker to be a reliable option as a pass defender against a faster running back or taller tight end.
If the Packers are going to become even an above-average defense, they need to add athleticism to this position.
The Packers parted ways with Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith during the off-season, leaving an already inexperienced group even lighter on veterans. Brad Jones was moved to the inside to compensate for the losses, and was rewarded a hefty new contract. Behind Hawk and Jones were veteran Robert Francois (4th year), Jamari Lattimore (3rd year) Terrell Manning (2nd year), and rookies Sam Barrington (7th-round draft pick) and Jarvis Reed (undrafted free agent).
Obviously, the Packers organization was expecting Bishop and Smith to recover in time to be contributors in 2013, but that was not the case. Instead of overpaying a free agent, the team decided to test its luck with unproven talent. As starters, Hawk and Jones were expected to be durable run stoppers who didn't allow too many big plays in the passing game. What we got from the back-ups was anyone's guess.
2013 Packers Inside Linebackers
Starters: A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones
Back-Ups: Jamari Lattimore
Injured Reserve: Robert Francois, Sam Barrington
Practice Squad: Victor Aiyewa (promoted late in the year)
Released: Terrell Manning, Jarvis Reed
While A.J. Hawk has been a model of durability (only two missed games over eight seasons of action), his lack of athleticism is becoming exposed more and more with each passing season. Look no further than the Packers wild card loss to the 49ers for proof, as Hawk was beat by Vernon Davis for the game-tying score. Davis is obviously a freak of nature, but that's what Hawk is going to go up against in the NFL.
Hawk appeared to be playing at a lighter weight in 2013, and that helped him cover the flats better and move laterally with more fluidity, but it also took away from his ability to shed blocks as well as he used to. He played over 1,000 snaps in 2013 and finished with 116 tackles, including five sacks, and one interception.
Brad Jones missed three and a half games with a hamstring injury, and another one and half with an ankle injury later in the season. Jones still managed to finish third in the team in tackles with 84, including three sacks. Jones is more athletic than Hawk, but lacks the hip fluidity and instincts that Hawk possesses. His play was also seriously hindered by those nagging injuries.
Robert Francois' season was cut short by a ruptured Achilles tendon injury during Week 4, and his future with the team appears to be in jeopardy. Francois will be 29 heading into the 2014 season, and a ruptured Achilles is never easy to come back from. This may ultimately become a D.J. Smith type scenario when all is said and done.
Jamari Lattimore was moved from defensive end in college, to outside linebacker as a rookie in 2011, and was now in his second year as an inside linebacker in 2013. He showed much more confidence than a year ago was actually a "plus player" while replacing Brad Jones through most of October. Lattimore finished with 34 tackles and two sacks.
Sam Barrington impressed the coaching staff so much during preseason action that he beat out second-year man Terrell Manning for the fifth-spot on the depth chart. Barrington showed some explosiveness in his tackles during the preseason, and was on his way to becoming a regular starter on special teams before a hamstring injury ended his season. Barrington appears to have the instincts and athleticism to be a long-term option for the team, and will likely get another chance to play his way into the playing group in 2014.
Victor Aiyewa displayed high energy while brought in for special teams duties in the final six games of the season. The undrafted rookie out of Washington will likely be a camp body in 2014, but has yet to prove himself as a long-term option.
Final Grade: C-
With an inexperienced group behind the starters, it was important that both A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones stay healthy for the majority of the season. Hawk was able to hold up his end of the bargain, and was playing above-average football through the first half of the season. Jones was average when he was on the field, and often made his tackles five yards down the field.
The run defense was stout for the first half of the season, but it fell apart shortly after. While some blame goes into the disappearing act of B.J. Raji, a lot of blame falls directly on Hawk and Jones' inability to get off blocks. The duo was also beat across the middle by tight ends on a regular basis.
The only saving grace for this unit is that Jamari Lattimore appears to be a valuable commodity to the organization, which is critical given the amount of turnover this group has gone through over the past year. If Barrington turns into a reliable fourth option, the team will likely move on from Rob Francois and pick up another late round draft pick and add him to the mix.
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