Over a two-week span, we're take a look at each position group on the Packers and providing grades and insight on how they performed in the 2014 season. Today, we'll be looking at the linebackers. Follow along with all of our positional breakdowns here.
Many fans (myself included) were puzzled as to why the Green Bay Packers did not address the inside linebacker position in either the draft or through free agency heading into the season. Some believed that Brad Jones would be able to turn things around after an injury plagued 2013 season, while others believed a lighter A.J. Hawk would mean a more productive pass rush from the unit. The team also had young, unproven players in Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington and added a potential inside linebacker in Carl Bradford through the draft.
Here is a look at the Packers' inside linebackers from the 2014 season.
6'1, 240 pounds, age 24
14 games, 7 starts; 66 total tackles (45 solo), 1.0 sack, 2 passes defended
Barrington didn't start over A.J. Hawk until Week 7, and he still wasn't receiving as many snaps per game as Hawk until Week 12 due to the frequent moving of Clay Matthews from outside to inside. When he did receive the majority of snaps, Barrington brought an aggressive, hard-hitting attitude to a unit that has lacked toughness and fight in recent years. He doesn't have the prototypical size (6-foot-1) or speed (4.76 second 40) you might look for in an inside backer, but after a limited sample size, he's easily the best inside linebacker the team currently has on its roster. He still needs work on his coverage mechanics and block shedding technique, but his potential is promising.
6'1, 235 pounds, age 31
16 games, 13 starts; 94 total tackles (54 solo), 0.5 sack
For as much blame as Hawk has received over his career with the Packers, no one can fault him for his durability. He rarely missed a game in his nine years in green and gold, but father time appeared to finally catch up with Hawk this season. After seven games in which Hawk didn't register a single tackle for loss and was often pushed five yards down the field by interior linemen, the team decided to move in a different direction and give Sam Barrington a shot.
Hawk recorded only 12 pressures on 77 blitzes, on top of being unable to stand his ground in the run game. It was getting to the point where the only reason anyone could justify Hawk being on the field was due to his football IQ and understanding of Dom Capers' schemes. Even that was exposed throughout the course of the season, and manifested itself on Seattle's fake field-goal touchdown pass, in which Hawk didn't get as deep as the deepest man and was caught in no man's land between the punter and the receiver. It's a sad ending for a player who was drafted fifth overall in 2006, but time continues to be undefeated against us mortals.
6'3, 242 pounds, age 28
13 games, started 1; 18 total tackles (12 solo).
Much like Hawk, I expect the Brad Jones Experience to come to an end this off-season. The team will save $3.75 million in cap space by cutting him loose. In a telling turn of events, Jones played all but two snaps in the season opener at Seattle, but did not see the field on defense in the NFC Championship Game. If it seemed like every time he was on the field he was called for a penalty, you wouldn't be wrong. He drew five of the unit's seven penalties throughout the season, despite only playing 17% of the snaps on defense
6'2, 229 pounds, age 26
11 games, five started; 39 total tackles (23 solo), 1 interception.
Lattimore received the first opportunity to replace a banged up Brad Jones in Week 2. The young, inexperienced linebacker played at a much faster pace than both Jones and Hawk, but it was often a chaotic pace with no control. The biggest issues with Lattimore are that he consistently gets beat in coverage and doesn't appear have a strong grasp of the Dom Capers' scheme. If he can correct those issues, he could be a plus-player for this team. He appears to be a long-term project at the position, so there's not a definitive answer on whether the team will offer him another contract or not.
6'1, 252 pounds, age 22
When the team drafted Bradford last off-season, I was pretty confused by the selection. Bradford is an undersized outside linebacker who relied almost exclusively on his speed and quickness to get to the quarterback while playing as a pass-rushing specialist at Arizona State. If you don't have pass-rush moves to go along with speed and quickness, you won't make it in the NFL. I hate to peg a guy as a bust after a limited sample size in exhibition games as a rookie, but he showed no signs of promise at outside linebacker, and looked lost when the team moved him to inside linebacker in the final exhibition game. Maybe the team will continue to evaluate him, but I have a hard time seeing him as a contributor in the short-term.
Position Grade: D+
The 2014 season was a rough one for anyone still on the A.J. Hawk or Brad Jones bandwagon, as both veterans were eventually supplanted by an undrafted free agent and a seventh-round selection. The team climbed from 25th overall in defense to 15th after giving Sam Barrington the starting role and moving Clay Matthews from strictly a pass-rushing outside linebacker into a hybrid role. The switch appeared to be a desperation move to help fix a unit that simply couldn't stop the run through the first half of the season, but it helped keep the weaker links off the field and the team's playmakers in a position to be more effective.
With cap benefits of at least $3.5 million apiece if they're cut loose, it looks unlikely that Hawk or Jones will return to Green Bay next season, as the team has found younger, cheaper alternatives in Sam Barrington and Jamari Lattimore. I would still expect the organization to add one or two veteran free agents and a young prospect through the draft this offseason, as Barrington and Lattimore are not franchise players by any stretch of the imagination. The sooner the organization stops applying band-aids to this unit and actually gets to the root of the problem, the sooner the Packers defense will have a legit and complete front seven to pair with a promising, young secondary.