When Aaron Rodgers is your quarterback, it's understandable that everyone agrees on the starter. Similarly, when you have Clay Matthews wreaking havoc on opposing offenses, you know he's going to start. You didn't need us to tell you that.
But not all positions are so clearly defined or agreed upon. Chief among these are the inside linebackers. The Packers have essentially had one new starter each year from 2010 on. That's considerable turnover for any team, let alone one with championship aspirations.
It's quite unusual then that inside linebacker was the only position to receive identical votes from the APC writers. Each of us pegged the same two starters, the same backups, and the same practice squad player.
Inside linebackers on the 53-man roster: FIVE
Projected Starters: A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones
To the chagrin of a large segment of the fanbase, Hawk will return as a starter. While he has never been the field titling player the Packers thought they were getting with the 5th overall pick, he's coming off his strongest year as a pro and is a model of consistency. While he struggles in pass coverage, defensive coordinator Dom Capers mostly shields Hawk from matchups where he'll be exposed. If Hawk has another year of solid run defense and low penalties, the Packers should be able to withstand his deficiencies.
Jones enters his first year as a presumptive starter. After flipping between the outside and inside, he's finally settled as an above-average inside linebacker. His value is derived primarily from his pass coverage which compares favorably to anyone in the league. Jones also performed well in run support, a critical factor for a team which plays Adrian Peterson twice a year. With Capers preferring to play mostly in nickel, Jones will be called upon often to erase tight ends and slot receivers running through the middle of the field.
Returning Hawk and Jones as starters also means that the Packers should have the same pair of starting inside linebackers for consecutive years since the team transitioned to a 3-4 defense. While continuity in this position group isn't as valuable as it is for, say, the offensive line, the inside linebackers are charged with quarterbacking the defense. With the potential for up to four new starting defenders, having the same guys relaying signals will be a boon for the defense.
Projected Backups: Terrell Manning, Jamari Lattimore, Robert Francois
The Packers have kept more inside linebackers in the past, but the APC writers agreed there are probably only three backup spots this year. In Green Bay, being a backup linebacker means you play occasionally in sub-packages, and you absolutely play on special teams.
Francois has been a valuable special teamer for several seasons, and he'll reprise that role in 2013. On defense, Francois' strength and weakness is that he's average in all areas. That makes him an ideal short-term fill-in for an injured starter, but there will always be someone stronger in any given facet of the game. When the coaches determine who to play in a particular sub-package, preference is given to those who specializes in the particular skill that role requires. Because both Manning and Lattimore possess superior athleticism and project as better in coverage and against the run, expect Francois to be passed over.
Off the Roster: Sam Barrington
Leaving Barrington without a roster spot may suggest that APC's writers aren't excited about his potential, but that's not quite true. Every voter included Barrington on their practice squad, the only defender to be unanimously selected there. What's keeping him off the roster is the perceived depth in front of him. The Packers aren't likely to carry more than five inside linebackers, and each of the names ahead of Barrington have more experience and a better pedigree. It wouldn't be that much of an upset if Barrington sneaks on the roster over a player like Lattimore, but the other inside linebackers are simply better positioned to take a roster spot.
Tomorrow, Tony dissects the safeties to cap off your work week.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Co. He has previously written for Lombardi Ave, College Hoops Net, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is also currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn
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