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.
One year ago, Acme Packing Company predicted that the Green Bay Packers would enter the 2014 season with A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones as the starters at inside linebacker. In fact, that was one of the few positions that we got entirely correct, as we had Sam Barrington and Jamari Lattimore as the expected backups as well (though we did not necessarily project Carl Bradford's shift inside).
What we did not count on was how extensively the team would use Clay Matthews inside after the bye week, nor did we expect that it would have such a massive impact on the team's ability to stop the run
In 2015, three of the players listed at inside backer at this time a year ago are gone - Hawk is off to Cincinnati, near his hometown; Jones is in Philadelphia; and Lattimore ended up in New York with the Jets. But while there is new blood at the position, much of it comes as a result of position changes or adjusted roles, as we project only one newcomer to the roster in general to make the team inside.
Here are our projections for the Packers' decisions at inside linebacker to start the 2015 season.
Starters: Clay Matthews, Sam Barrington
As we mentioned earlier, we project Matthews to be listed as the starter at inside linebacker when the season begins, and that he will pair with Barrington. The two played well together over the second half of last season, and we expect that they will continue to do so. Barrington is the steadier player, providing good run support while gradually improving in coverage, while Matthews is the playmaker - he'll be all over the field, flying to the ball.
Backups: Carl Bradford, Jake Ryan, Nate Palmer
We expect the Packers to go with youth and special teams ability to round out the inside linebacker unit. Ryan is obviously a lock for the roster - Ted Thompson has never cut a rookie drafted earlier than the fifth round, and with Ryan's pedigree and ability, he won't be the first. He'll be looked at as the inside linebacker of the future, but for now he'll focus on special teams and learning the position in case he is called upon to step in due to injury.
We think that Bradford will take a jump in training camp this year as well and solidify himself as a primary backup. Even though he showed little in his limited preseason action at inside linebacker a year ago, he's got a full season of learning the defense, and should be much improved this year. He and Ryan were the second-team inside backers in OTA practices (at least when Matthews was playing inside), and we expect that to remain the case.
APC was once again torn on whether to give the inside unit a fifth player, but ultimately with Matthews moving outside regularly it was tough to imagine only rolling with four. Enter Palmer, who we see developing into a key presence on special teams. He could contribute inside on an emergency basis, but we expect him to play a role much like that of Robert Francois a few years ago - a special teams anchor who sees the field only if there are multiple injuries.
Next up on Tuesday, we'll break down the cornerback position.