Despite one new player added to the position, the Green Bay Packers' top three inside linebacker spots appear to be locked up with veterans. Fighting for another couple of roster positions behind them are key special teams contributors and young players who have yet to make their mark on defense.
Sam Barrington (7th round, South Florida)
An outside linebacker in college, Barrington looks to make the same move inside that Terrell Manning made last season. Barrington did not have a particularly impressive scouting combine, but showed some good improvement at his Pro Day. He improved both his vertical and broad jumps by five inches apiece and cut over a tenth of a second off his 40 time (from 4.83 to 4.69). Barrington put up 6.5 sacks in his four years at USF and had a total of 21.5 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles. We should know a little more about Barrington after this weekend's rookie minicamp.
Bishop is thought of as the big hitter inside and the best run defender of the group, but Bishop is equally solid as a blitzer and has a talent for shooting the gaps created by the defensive line. His absence was notable last season, especially early on when D.J. Smith was filling in rather unsuccessfully. Having him back at 100% should give this unit a big boost.
He is a popular target of criticism, but Hawk has a well-defined role and his snap counts show that the coaching staff has identified it. Over half of his snaps in 2012 were in run defense, so it seems logical to assume that he is one of the players frequently coming off the field when a nickel defensive back comes on. We may see Brad Jones rotating snaps with Hawk frequently, depending on how the team chooses to address that limitation in his game.
As mentioned above, Jones may be a candidate to take some of Hawk's snaps in passing situations, as well as Bishop's. He was very good in pass coverage last season and in tandem with Bishop they should provide a solid coverage/blitz package. Obviously, he played the right spot vacated by Bishop last season, but his skill set makes him appear to be an ideal candidate to rotate with Hawk. Jones was also very good in run defense during the regular season, though he struggled against the Vikings and 49ers. Look for this to be a 3-man unit if everyone is healthy, with Jones likely getting some snaps at both inside positions.
Packers fans should have high hopes for Manning, despite the fact that he played special teams exclusively in 2012. His illness in training camp set his development back almost a full season, so now that he is finally healthy and fully recovered this off-season will be his first chance to show the Packers why he was worthy of a trade up in the draft last year. If he does show promise this off-season, he may earn some playing time on defense and would become a primary backup option while remaining on special teams.
Despite a nice little run as a substitute in 2011 when he played well in pass coverage, Francois has been a career special-teamer. However, that role still has a lot of value for this team, and he re-signed a one-year deal this off-season to stay in Green Bay. Unless there is an unexpected turn of events in training camp, he will likely remain on the roster this season.
Lattimore is one of those versatile inside/outside players, who took his only eight defensive snaps in 2012 at left outside linebacker. However, his role is much the same as Francois', playing special teams virtually exclusively. Since he has not shown much from a defensive standpoint and the inside linebacker spot appears to have solid depth at this point, it's entirely possible his roster spot could go to a younger OLB or even a tight end prospect who can play special teams; Andy Mulumba is one candidate, as are Jake Stoneburner or Brandon Bostick.
Projected Depth Chart
LILB: A.J. Hawk/Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore
RILB: Desmond Bishop, Terrell Manning, Robert Francois