This is the seventh in a series of 14 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers’ July 26 start of camp.
TODAY’S POSITION: LINEBACKERS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6
Projected starters: Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Jamari Lattimore, *Sam Barrington, *Carl Bradford, *Nick Perry, *Nate Palmer, *Andy Mulumba, Jake Doughty, Jayrone Elliot, Adrian Hubbard, Shaun Lewis, Joe Thomas
As mentioned in the defensive line preview, the Packers’ official roster will be taken at face value for purposes of this series. That meant Mike Neal was analyzed as a defensive lineman, but Julius Peppers will be viewed as a linebacker.
In the biggest offseason acquisition by Green Bay since signing Charles Woodson in 2006, general manager Ted Thompson surprised many when the Packers not only brought in a big name but also one who is 34 years old. With a 90-man training camp roster that only has six players 30 years of age or older, Green Bay is obviously a young team. Peppers is three years older than the next-oldest players, John Kuhn and Tramon Williams. But one reason that Thompson felt confident in Peppers is because in 12 NFL seasons the eight-time Pro Bowl selection has only missed two games due to injury.
The Packers had been looking for a good tag-team partner for Clay Matthews at outside linebacker, and instead of waiting another year with fingers crossed that Nick Perry emerges, Green Bay brought Peppers on board. Whether Peppers performs like a player who has the wear and tear of nearly 200 NFL games to his name remains to be seen. Many believe that Peppers (who had 7.0 sacks last season, down from 11.5 and 11.0 the previous two years) took a step back in 2013. The Packers were clearly willing to gamble that Peppers will find all the necessary energy in his search for a Super Bowl ring.
Matthews is coming off a down season, one that saw him suffer a Bennett’s fracture in his thumb and later re-break it. Of his 7.5 sacks, three of them resulted in injuries. That’s just bad luck. But if Matthews can stay healthy (always a big "if" with him), he should see fewer double-teams as long as Peppers is forcing opposing offenses to respect him on the other edge. The five-year, $66 million extension that Matthews signed during the 2013 offseason kicks in this season. At 28 years old, Matthews will have to prove that he was worth the big future investment that Green Bay put into him.
The Packers opted not to address the inside linebacker position this offseason. Along with the safety group (which has since been addressed with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and converting Micah Hyde into a hybrid role), inside linebacker is the weakest position on the roster. Brad Jones couldn’t stay healthy and often struggled when on the field last season after re-signing for three years and $11.75 million. A.J. Hawk had what the coaching staff believed was his best-ever season, an encouraging step for the durable 30-year-old. But a Hawk/Jones duo can only do so much for Green Bay’s defense, as neither is a disruptive force at — or behind — the line of scrimmage often enough. That’s why it may be up to another inside linebacker to make 2014 his year to shine.
Best position battle:
Jamari Lattimore vs. Brad Jones
In Jones’ absence for a portion of last season, Lattimore started four games. However, the results were mixed. He showed flashes of what’s made him an intriguing prospect, but Lattimore’s weaknesses were also exposed at times.
The Packers showed that they continue to believe in Lattimore when they gave him a restricted free-agent tender this offseason, but it wasn’t a huge investment at $1.4 million for one year. Lattimore will certainly be given every opportunity to win a starting job, and whether he’s able to do so could go a long way in how Green Bay’s defense performs this season.
Not drafting a safety in 2013 seemed like a mistake at the time and it proved to be one throughout the course of the year. Not drafting an inside linebacker this year — even though the top two prospects at the position, Ryan Shazier and C.J. Mosley, were off the board — could have a similar effect. It’ll be up to Lattimore and perhaps second-year player Sam Barrington to not let inside linebacker become an issue in 2014 like safety was in 2013.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North:
1. Packers; 2. Lions; 3. Bears; 4. Vikings
Linebacker is not a position of great strength within the division, but Green Bay has the best group. No other linebacker in the NFC North is capable of what Matthews is, and having a star player like that gives the Packers an instant advantage.
Detroit got a good 2013 season out of former Wisconsin Badger DeAndre Levy. The Lions will need that out of him again, as rookie second-rounder Kyle Van Noy likely will be lined up opposite of Levy in Detroit’s 4-3 defense. In the middle, Stephen Tulloch had a great 2013 season with 3.5 sacks, 135 tackles and an interception.
Chicago still has veteran Lance Briggs anchoring its outside linebackers, but the 33-year-old isn’t nearly the player that he used to be. Jon Bostic and D.J. Williams round out the very mediocre group.
Minnesota invested the No. 9 overall pick in this year’s draft in outside linebacker Anthony Barr. Opposite Barr will be Chad Greenway, who ProFootballFocus rated as the second-worst 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL last season. The Vikings signed Jasper Brinkley — who failed to make an impact in his first four NFL seasons — to be the likely starter at middle linebacker.