FOX Sports Wisconsin’s Paul Imig provides complete coverage of the Packers and the 2014 NFL Draft in his 14-part preview. You can find the entire series here.
TODAY’S POSITION: Linebackers
Importance (1-to-10 scale): 8
On the roster
(Note: Inside linebackers and outside linebackers are combined into one group here.)
If the 2014 season started without the advantage of being able to use players selected in the upcoming draft, the Packers would still field a decent linebacker group. But it’s also an area that needs help.
Clay Matthews, even with his injuries, is still a tremendous difference-maker for the defense. He’ll have to prove that he can still be effective using his hands after undergoing two thumb surgeries last season, but having 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 11 games while often being double-teamed is impressive. However, he’s the only one of the four presumed starting linebackers who should have his job guaranteed.
Playing opposite Matthews on the outside could be a combination of players, but there are some fairly good options for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to work with. Nick Perry hasn’t been consistently healthy enough to provide the Packers what they were looking for when drafting him in the first round in 2012. Now, unlike the past two years, Perry will face strong competition in earning a significant amount of snaps.
Mike Neal made a successful transition to outside linebacker last season, but his role was supposed to be more of a hybrid than it actually was. With the elephant position planned to become a thing in Green Bay’s defense in 2014, Neal will likely split his time between playing with his hand in the dirt and standing up outside.
The same will likely be true of Julius Peppers, the six-time All Pro who will be adjusting to a new style of defense at age 34. Like Neal, Peppers is listed on the Packers’ official website as being a linebacker/defensive lineman combo, which is basically the team’s way of saying "elephant position."
Having Perry, Neal and Peppers in some type of rotation to pair with Matthews should have Capers feeling quite confident that Green Bay’s outside linebacker play will be solid — and perhaps great.
At inside linebacker, the Packers have their two starters, and they have a couple backups who could perform if called upon. The problem is that none of them are great players, and in Capers’ defense, it’s a position that can change the game entirely if there’s a dominant inside linebacker.
The durable A.J. Hawk is back for his ninth season in Green Bay and is coming off of what the coaching staff believed to be his best-ever year. He’s one of only five players on the roster at age 30 or older though, so regardless of the front office’s feelings about Hawk in 2014, a replacement needs to be ready to go soon.
An injury-filled season prevented Brad Jones from living up to the new contract that he signed last offseason. Jones is the type of player who, approaching his sixth NFL season at age 28, is what he is. He’s serviceable when healthy, but he’s not a game-changer.
Currently behind Hawk and Jones are Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington. The Packers brought Lattimore back this offseason as a restricted free agent, but he more falls into the "good backup" category than "capable of being a full-time starter." Barrington was a seventh-round pick in 2013, and it remains to be seen how good he can be in the NFL.
The reserves at outside linebacker include Andy Mulumba (who had a good rookie season, especially for an undrafted player) and Nate Palmer (a sixth-round pick in 2013 who fell behind Mulumba on the depth chart).
Last five linebackers drafted
Philosophy at the position
Drafting Clay Matthews five years ago has helped general manager Ted Thompson tremendously in knowing that at least one half of his outside linebackers are set. But while Perry has plenty of time to turn into a productive player for the Packers, that first-round pick has certainly not worked out well for Green Bay after two seasons. Thompson has also continued to show confidence in Hawk and Jones, as well as in Lattimore.
As a result of those circumstances, the last three linebacker picks by the Packers have come in the fifth, sixth and seventh round. That needs to change this year.
Green Bay desperately needs a playmaking inside linebacker, and it’s one of the team’s two biggest needs (along with safety). If the third round of the draft has concluded and the Packers did not use one of their first four picks (Nos. 21, 53, 85, 98) on an inside linebacker, it would be a failure of sorts for Thompson.
Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)
Ryan Shazier, junior, Ohio State (6-1, 237): Shazier is listed as an outside linebacker in most places, but in the Packers defense, he’d project to mostly play inside. The search for a playmaker on the inside could cease if Green Bay lands Shazier. He’s very fast for the position and uses that speed to make plays in the backfield and all across the field. A player of Shazier’s skill set might be hitting the NFL at the perfect time, as chasing down mobile quarterbacks won’t be a problem for him. The downfall with Shazier is he lacks bulk, and it might be difficult for him to ever comfortably climb above his current 237 pounds.
Shazier on adding weight: "At the end of last season, I was about 228. I’m about 237 now. I like where I’m at right now. Even if I can gain a little more, that would probably help. But I like where I’m at. I feel exactly the same. I have to continue to put it on the right way, not sloppy weight, and I feel I can maintain the speed and power I have."
Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)
Chris Borland, senior, Wisconsin (5-11, 248): If the Packers don’t take an inside linebacker in the first round and Borland is still around at No. 53, Thompson should be thrilled with the way the board worked out. Borland has entered into the first-round-pick conversation, but he’s most likely an early-to-mid Round 2 choice. Borland doesn’t have ideal height for the position and also has short arms and an injury history. Those are three fairly big negatives. However, nearly everything he does on the field looks great. He’s an instinctive playmaker who should really help an NFL team from Day 1.
Kyle Van Noy, senior, BYU (6-3, 243): Van Noy likely won’t last into Day 3, but he’d also likely be a reach in the second round, thus making it at least possible that he’s still on the board in the fourth round. Van Noy should be a versatile NFL player, one who can play all three downs due to his equal talents of rushing the passer and dropping back in coverage. He has good speed for the position but lacks the desired arm length. Unlike several of Green Bay’s current outside linebackers, Van Noy actually has experience at the position and won’t need to go through a conversion process.
FOXSports.com’s draft expert Peter Schrager says:
"Van Noy has been favorably compared to a certain Clay Matthews, but that’s a bit much. He can get to the quarterback, though, and fits the size/build the Packers could be looking for at outside linebacker. Nick Perry went in the first round a few years back, but the position has served as a nagging concern for years. Injuries riddled the depth chart, leaving fourth and fifth stringers out there in the playoff loss to the 49ers. I like Van Noy. Good fit."