Last Thursday at the NFL Combine, Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said that there were "a number of moving parts" at the inside linebacker position during the 2014 season. Those parts continued to move over the days following his press conference, as the Packers parted ways with two of their longer-tenured linebackers during and shortly after the Combine.
Both Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk have been given their long-expected releases, leaving the Packers with more financial flexibility but little experience at the position. Here's a look at what these moves mean for Green Bay as the offseason rolls along towards the 2015 NFL season.
Salary Cap Impacts
This is the first, and probably most important reason that these two players were released. Hawk's contract was set to pay him a total of $3.5 million this year, which is wiped off the books for cap purposes. Yes, the team will eat $1.6 million in dead money from his signing bonus, but that's a far cry from the $5.1 million cap hit he would have had.
Jones, on the other hand, saves the team even more. Like Hawk, he'll have prorated signing bonus money charged as dead money in 2015, but only $1 million; that opens up about $3.75 million in cap space.
All told, that's a little over $7 million freed up, and using the $143 million salary cap estimate, that puts the Packers with the ninth-most cap space at just over $33 million (from Overthecap.com). That's plenty of room to sign Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga, if of course Ted Thompson feels that they're worth their asking prices.
Depth at Inside Linebacker
Here's where the biggest impact will be felt on the roster, of course. Despite being utilized less often down the stretch and having performed mediocre in general, Hawk still played over 70% of the Packers' defensive snaps in 2014 and helped make sure the front seven was always aligned properly.
Jones, of course, played very little on defense in 2014, only seeing action on about 220 snaps out of the team's 1175 total.
All told, the Packer still will need to replace about 1100 snaps at inside linebacker in 2015, or about one full starter's worth. Sam Barrington is already penciled in as the starter at one spot, while Dom Capers would undoubtedly like to return Clay Matthews to his primary outside linebacker role. With Jamari Lattimore already a free agent and no lock to return after ending the season on injured reserve, nobody remaining on the roster except Barrington and Matthews have played a regular season down at inside linebacker. That includes possibilities like Carl Bradford, Nate Palmer, and Joe Thomas.
For better or for worse, Brad Jones was a mainstay on the special teams units in 2014, and not just the field goal block squad. Don't forget that he did force a fumble in punt coverage early in the game against Seattle. Overall on the season (including playoffs), he was credited with ten special teams tackles and two misses (from Pro Football Focus).
Do not mistake that last paragraph as an argument in favor of keeping Jones, though. Overall, he was a liability in 2014 across the board, and one that simply could not be retained for a cap hit of nearly $5 million.
Based on the depth section above, it's clear that the Packers need to add to the inside linebacker position; of course, it was clear before these players were released, but seeing how many snaps they played helps to put it into perspective a bit more.
It seems likely that Ted Thompson may dabble in free agency with a low-priced veteran free agent. Perhaps someone like Dan Skuta, Ashlee Palmer, or Mason Foster might be intriguing options on the open market.
Of course, finding a young long-term answer for the inside linebacker position continues to be one of the priorities that the Packers will assuredly look to in this year's NFL Draft. Unfortunately, the group consists of several players with second and third-round grades rather than any truly exceptional players. Still, it would be a major surprise if Ted Thompson did not address the position to some extent by the time day two of the draft concludes.