Packers have talent at LB, but few proven products outside of Clay Matthews

This is the seventh in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers’ July 26 start of camp.

TODAY’S POSITION: LINEBACKERS

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7

Projected starters: Clay Matthews (fifth year), Brad Jones (fifth year), A.J. Hawk (eighth year), Nick Perry (second year)

Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Dezman Moses, *Nate Palmer, *Terrell Manning, *Robert Francois, *Jamari Lattimore, *Sam Barrington, Andy Mulumba, Donte Savage.

The breakdown:

Clay Matthews might be the best outside linebacker in the NFL. At the very least, he’s now the league’s highest-paid player at that position after signing a five-year, $66 million extension this offseason. And while the Green Bay Packers can count on Matthews to produce double-digit sacks and take down running backs behind the line of scrimmage, he’s the only sure thing the team has at linebacker.

Nick Perry’s rookie season was cut short due to a wrist injury, but the six games he played in weren’t exactly first-round-pick caliber. Some growing pains for Perry were expected as he adjusted to playing outside linebacker, but the Packers will need him to take a big step forward in 2013.

Green Bay’s inside linebacker position looks just as it did when the 2012 season concluded. No Desmond Bishop and no D.J. Smith, with Brad Jones playing every snap and A.J. Hawk on the field more than 60 percent of the time. It was widely assumed that Bishop and Smith would be back with the Packers this season, but general manager Ted Thompson opted to cut both of them loose as they attempted to recover from serious injuries.

Though some Packers fans might still remember Jones as the below-average outside linebacker that he was in his first three NFL seasons, everything changed for him in 2012 as an inside linebacker. Jones still has work to do, especially after being re-signed to a three-year, $11.75 million contract, but he seems like he’ll be dependable in Green Bay’s defense. If Jones doesn’t deliver, Thompson’s decision to pay him big money while giving up on Bishop and Smith will be looked back on as a costly mistake.

Hawk’s role decreased significantly last season. After playing nearly every snap the previous two years, Hawk had no part in the Packers’ dime defense in 2012. Now 29 years old and playing on a reduced salary, Hawk isn’t likely to ever be anything more than he is now. He won’t live up to being the fifth-overall pick in 2006, but Green Bay’s front office and coaching staff still believe that Hawk brings value to the defense.

Best position battle:

Can Terrell Manning be good enough in training camp to earn significant snaps this season? Though it’s not a direct competition with any one player, Manning’s performance leading up to the regular season could determine how successful Green Bay’s linebackers will be.

Manning was a fifth-round pick in 2012 and, had he been healthy, would’ve qualified as having a very disappointing rookie season. However, Manning had a serious bout with colitis and lost nearly 20 pounds in one month. He wasn’t the same all year while recovering and getting his weight back up. Now healthy, Manning is a talented young player who could be the future of the Packers’ inside linebacker position. But is the future now?

The chances of Manning moving all the way up to No. 1 on the depth chart is highly unlikely. With the money paid to Jones, he’ll be expected to be an every-down player. More realistic is the possibility that Manning moves ahead of Hawk at some point this season, setting up what could be a passing-of-the-torch type of situation at inside linebacker.

Manning shouldn’t struggle to outperform fellow backups Robert Francois, Jamari Lattimore and rookie Sam Barrington. But with Bishop and Smith being released this offseason, opportunities at inside linebacker opened up for Manning to make an impact sooner than it seemed would be possible.

Ranking against the rest of the NFC North:

1. Packers; 2. Bears; 3. Vikings; 4. Lions

This isn’t a division with many great linebackers. Matthews’ dominance puts Green Bay No. 1 in this ranking, despite the question marks that the Packers have at their other linebacker spots. In Chicago, Lance Briggs is 32 years old but is coming off a good 2012 season. With Brian Urlacher retired, the Bears are counting on 30-year-old former Denver Bronco D.J. Williams — who’s never been very good — to take over. Minnesota is transitioning Erin Henderson to middle linebacker, though adding Bishop could change that plan by the time the season begins. Detroit’s linebackers have a lot to prove, as DeAndre Levy hasn’t done much, nor has Stephen Tulloch.

Manning says:

“Everybody hopes to have snaps on defense, especially a young guy like myself. But at some point in time that young card doesn’t play out for so long. You’ve got to go out there and be a man and prove it. Prove it to the world and show what you’ve got, including the coaches. … I was hired to do a job and I’m continuing to fight for a job this year. I can’t take it for granted. I have to take every day a step at a time, progress every day, learn as much as possible from the guys that surround me in my defense and just keep fighting.”

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