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2015 Packers Inside Linebacker Preview: Matthews' contributions ease need for new blood

With the Packers' best linebacker playing a hybrid role, his usage will heavily define the way the Packers fill out the roster this summer.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next few weeks, we will break down each position on the Green Bay Packers' 2015 roster in detail, discussing each player and making our predictions for the final 53-man roster.

As we continue our look at the Packers' roster in advance of the start of the team's 2015 training camp, today we break down the inside linebackers. First up, we break down the players returning to the roster from last year.

One name, of course, is a little tough to define as an inside or outside linebacker, as he played a hybrid role over the second half of last season. Based on OTA practices, the coaching staff still appears poised to use Clay Matthews at both positions, and since he was heavily involved in the base defense as an inside linebacker, that is how we are defining him for this analysis.

Sam Barrington

Age: 24 (turns 25 in October)
H/W: 6'1", 240 pounds
NFL Seasons: 2
College: South Florida
2014 Stats: 14 games played, 7 starts; 66 total tackles (45 solo), 2 passes defended, 1.0 sack

Contract Status: Third year of four-year rookie contract worth $2.209 million; 2015 cap hit of $597,250

Barrington enters 2015 as the incumbent starter inside, as the Packers have moved on from A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones. Likely to play on every down, Barrington has been vocal all offseason about earning his leadership role on the team and his starting job all over again this summer.

Likely to make the calls for the defense, Barrington will be tasked with helping ensure that the Packers are in the right alignments according to Dom Capers' playcalls and will also be tasked with helping the younger players at the position grow into contributors.

Clay Matthews

Age: 29
H/W: 6'3", 255 pounds
NFL Seasons: 6
College: Southern California
2014 Stats: 16 starts; 71 total tackles (52 solo), 11.0 sacks, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles, 9 passes defended

Contract Status: Signed 5-year, $66 million extension in 2013, signed through 2018; 2015 cap hit of $12.7 million

Though Barrington's elevation to the starting lineup was a key component of the Packers' improved play down the stretch, it was Matthews' move to a more versatile role (including playing heavily inside) that really turned around the season on that side of the ball. We expect Matthews to start the season in a similar role, playing inside on base downs and in the nickel defense (as he did in OTAs) before shifting back out to an outside rushing position in the dime defense.

Bringing terrific athletic ability and football intelligence to both positions, Matthews is simply the most versatile linebacker on the roster, and possibly in the entire league.

Carl Bradford

Age: 22 (turns 23 in August)
H/W: 6'1", 252 pounds
NFL Seasons: 1
College: Arizona State
2014 Stats: (none)

Contract Status: Second year of four-year rookie contract worth $2.649 million; 2015 cap hit of $617,325

Bradford's rookie season has been repeatedly referred to as a "redshirt" year, which seems appropriate. The coaching staff struggled to find a good role for Bradford in training camp, finally shifting him inside during the final week of the preseason. Now the question is whether Bradford has absorbed enough to make a difference inside and crack the two-deep roster as a backup to Barrington or Matthews.

Nathan Palmer

Age: 25 (turns 26 in September)
H/W: 6'2", 248 pounds
NFL Seasons: 2
College: Illinois State
2014 Stats: (none)

Contract Status: Third year of four-year rookie contract worth $2.259 million; 2015 cap hit of $609,724

Like Bradford, Palmer was drafted as an outside linebacker, but shifted inside late during last year's preseason. Palmer's 2014 season was also lost, but that was due to a knee injury. Palmer may be in line for a role on special teams as well, an area where he was a participant during his rookie year.

Joe Thomas

Age: 24
H/W: 6 '1", 227 pounds
NFL Seasons: None (on practice squad in 2014)
College: South Carolina State
2014 Stats: (none)

Contract Status: Second year of three-year contract; 2015 cap hit of $435,000

Thomas, an undrafted free agent signing of the Packers' last season, had a solid training camp but also suffered an injury late in camp and was waived with an injury settlement shortly before the final cut-down date. Thomas was brought back once the settlement period elapsed and participated as a member of the practice squad over the final two months of the season. His listed size is a little small for the Packers' inside linebacker corps, but a full offseason in the Packers' training program should help him bulk up to the point where he can be effective. The question is whether he can beat out the players listed above (and some of the rookies) either on defense or special teams.

Stay tuned for our look at this year's rookies later today.