Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers’ success in the 2014 season. Check back each weekday to see the latest player on the list. You can find the entire list here.
NOTE: This is not a list of the team’s 25 best players, but rather it’s a list of which players mean the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player’s position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
Most agreed that the Green Bay Packers’ biggest priority in the 2014 draft was landing a starting-caliber safety. That was accomplished immediately in the first round with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. But what was almost just as unanimous was that the Packers’ next-biggest need was at inside linebacker. That did not happen, leaving Green Bay to hope that it wasn’t a costly mistake to stick with its current group that is headlined by A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore.
The reason that all three players are lumped together is because it really doesn’t matter which of them has a great season, but one of them has to perform at a very high level in 2014. If Hawk, Jones or Lattimore are able to do that, people will forget about what appeared before the draft to be a glaring positional need on the Packers’ roster. The combination of Hawk, Jones and Lattimore are capable of doing that, too, so it’s not unrealistic to think that it can be done.
Hawk is the steady veteran, one who didn’t live up to being a No. 5 overall pick in 2006 but who has had a long career because he’s been able to stay healthy. Jones had the one good season in 2012, a season good enough that Green Bay locked him up with a three-year deal. Lattimore is the up-and-comer, albeit one who’s had his share of NFL seasoning at this point.
The trio of Hawk, Jones and Lattimore are No. 9 on this list because inside linebacker is a very key position in the Packers defense. If even one of them can deliver, Green Bay will be much better for it. But if all three struggle, it will be just like safety was during the 2013 season: a position that should’ve been addressed in the draft that led to the Packers’ defensive undoing.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2014
With Hawk, the expectation is to stay healthy. After missing just two games in eight seasons, that seems like a given. But he’s 30 years old now, and he’s stuck around Green Bay this long partially because the Packers can count on him to be available. That’s a key part of his role on the team. If Hawk can put together another season like he did in 2013, a season that most coaches thought was his best ever, he could prove to be better as a veteran than he ever was as a young player.
With Jones, the expectation is to live up to the three-year, $11 million contract that Green Bay gave him during the 2013 offseason. At the moment, that doesn’t seem like money well spent. But that’s the benefit of a three-year deal instead of a one-year deal, as it gives Jones a chance to rectify what was a disappointing 2013 season for him.
With Lattimore, the expectation is to take advantage of whatever playing time he gets and show the Packers that he’s the future (if not also the present) at the position. While that’s a reasonable expectation for him, the hope within the organization is that he outplays Hawk and Jones and bypasses them on the depth chart as soon as possible. The careers of Hawk and Jones are pretty well defined, but Lattimore still has the "potential" tag attached to him. But "Lattimore still has a lot of potential" could turn into "Lattimore is what he is" if he turns in an average-to-below-average 2014 season.
WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT THEM?
Don’t forget about Sam Barrington, a seventh-round pick in 2013 who’s a very intriguing young talent. Barrington didn’t get on the field at all on defense as a rookie, but he has the skill set to emerge at the position.
The Packers’ decision to not draft an inside linebacker in May was partially because there weren’t many great ones to be had, especially after C.J. Mosley and Ryan Shazier were gone before Green Bay was up at No. 21. But another part of it could certainly have to do with the Packers’ curiosity as to whether Lattimore or Barrington show signs of becoming long-term starters. If Barrington gets a chance at any significant snaps in 2014, it will be interesting to see if he stands out in a positive way.
Carl Bradford, Green Bay’s fourth-round pick this year, is not going to play inside linebacker, at least not right away. The Packers’ plan with Bradford is to use him at outside linebacker. Only if he fails there will the team move him inside. That’s why it’s even more important for Hawk, Jones and Lattimore to play well this season, and for Barrington to show something special if he gets on the field.