Next up in our series on the Pack's roster heading into training camp is a position that must be the heart and soul of any team deploying a 3-4 defensive system and this summer, the competition should be pretty spirited.
As it should be, four of the top seven tacklers on the Packers' defense were linebackers, and while they racked up decent tackling numbers, outside of the superstar of the group, really big plays were hard to come by. As a group, they had just two interceptions, three forced fumbles and zero fumble recoveries. Both picks belonged to a player who is now in Indianapolis, Erik Walden. Also departing were Frank Zombo, not even offered a contract to return, D.J. Smith and just this week, Desmond Bishop was released coming off his season ending hamstring surgery. There will be plenty of turnover but there's also one constant who has developed into one of the NFL's best at the position. Clay Matthews is entering his fifth NFL season, rewarded with a mega-contract from the organization this offseason. With good reason. Matthews has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four years in the league. He finished 7th on the team in tackles with 60 but was fourth in the entire league in sacks with 13 and a half. Add up the countless pressures and hurries while more often than not, facing double teams, Matthews is an NFL premier player hitting his prime. The only remaining question is, will he get any help? Nick Perry is ready to step up on the left side after trying to play through and then shutting his rookie season down with a wrist injury that eventually required surgery. Perry needs to take a big step forward in year two. A.J. Hawk accepted a pay cut to stick and he'll remain inside in base defensive packages. I know a lot of people expected the former 5th pick overall to be a multiple pro bowler, but I side with GM Ted Thompson who believes Hawk is a solid NFL player who may be short on blow up plays, but even shorter on assingment mistakes. The team became enamored with Brad Jones and how he finished the season as the third string, inside backer. Jones received a contract extension from the club and will now, in his 5th year, be given an opportunity to be an every day player, even staying on the field as the nickel and dime linebacker. Those four will be the starters in the 3-4 set of coordinator Dom Capers. The battle for the backup jobs should be intense. Leading the list of returning players are Dezman Moses, the longshot free agent who stuck last year and flashed playmaking ability with four sacks and a forced fumble. Robert Francois is another player who re-signed with the team on the promise of a chance for snaps although most will likely still come on special teams where he finsihed second on the team in tackles last year. Jamari Lattimore moved from outside to inside backer in camp last summer and he's another corps special teammer. The player I feel is ready to jump into the mix is Terrell Manning. Derailed by a severe case of colitis last year, Manning is one I'll be keeping my eye on in camp. The Packers also drafted a pair of linebackers to push those returning vets and possibly, surpass them. Nate Palmer, the 6th rounder from Illinios State is making the move from a rush end to an outside backer and Sam Barrington, the 7th rounder from South Florida has played virtually every linebacking position and looks like a fine athlete that might give cover teams a boost. There are three, free agent linebackers on the roster who are extreme longshots in this crowded field, Andy Mulumba, Jarvis Reed and Donte Savage.