2014 Packers Training Camp Battles: Linebackers
As bad as the Green Bay Packers defensive line was in 2013, the linebackers were nearly as bad. Unlike the defensive line, which will look a lot different in 2014 than it did in 2013, the group of linebackers remains pretty much the same.
With one notable exception, of course.
The problems of 2013 had a lot to do with injuries, as well as the usual ineffective play in the middle.
Clay Matthews’ annual hamstring injury, coupled with a broken thumb (the same thumb, twice) limited him to 11 games. Just for the record, Matthews hasn’t played a full 16-game season since his rookie year.
Nick Perry, a first-round pick in 2012, was also limited to 11 games with a foot injury.
On the inside, Brad Jones was limited to 12 games with — you guessed it — a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, A.J. Hawk was his usual A.J. Hawk self. In other words, underwhelming.
We wouldn’t be surprised if the linebackers are the weak spot of this year’s defense, but somebody’s got to start and we know who two of those guys are. The other two spots should be somewhat up for grabs.
Here’s the lay of the land.
Well, we all know Matthews is starting at one outside linebacker spot. That is, until he pulls up lame with his 2014 hamstring injury. Anyway, he should at least make it to week one fully healthy.
Peppers should be a shoo-in as the second outside linebacker. You know, if he had ever played outside linebacker in his career. The reality is this. The Packers are probably going to try Peppers at outside linebacker. They’re also going to move him around, which means he’ll be playing some of his traditional position, defensive end. As we noted yesterday, we think Peppers and the Packers are better off with him starting at defensive end, which brings us to these next two guys.
Perry’s 2013 stat line looks like this: 11 games, 6 starts, 28 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles. Not exactly what you’d expect from a first-round pick. To be fair, Perry played in a number of those games with an injured foot. We’ll give him kudos for that, but the thing you notice about Perry is that you don’t notice him. Unless you’re an offensive lineman, that’s not good. Perry makes the occasional play, but has never shown any flashes of dominance or even consistency. Maybe this is his year though.
There’s a lot to like about Mike Neal. He finally looked like a solid contributor last season, after the Packers moved him from defensive end to outside linebacker. He played in all 16 games, with 10 starts, and tallied 47 tackles, 5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. The most impressive thing is he put up those numbers playing a new position. It stands to reason that he’ll only get better in his second season at outside linebacker.
The Packers obviously hope so. They gave Neal a two-year, $8 million contract this offseason, with $2.5 million guaranteed. It’s a small sample size, but Neal has looked better at outside linebacker than Perry.
Sigh. A.J. Hawk will be getting plowed over by running backs, eaten up by blockers, getting burned in coverage and jumping on piles to increase his tackle stats just like they taught him at Ohio State for eternity. Or at least as long as Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson are around. Hawk isn’t, wasn’t and never will be a playmaking inside linebacker. He’s just a guy. A guy whose legs would have to fall off before the Packers would take him out of the starting lineup. And then, they’d probably still roll him out there in one of those carts they give to dogs that are missing their back legs.
You know, we may very well be dreaming (or hoping), but there have been indications that Jones isn’t guaranteed a starting spot this year. It would be quite the departure from the norm for the Packers to go with a young guy instead of a mediocre veteran at inside linebacker, but hope springs eternal.
Anyway, the Packers gave Jones a nice, big contract after the 2012 season. That was his first year as a mediocre starter, so why not reward him for his awesome mediocrity, right? Right. So Jones came out in 2013 and was again awesomely mediocre. He had 84 tackles, 3 sacks and a forced fumble in the 12 games we was able to play. Not awful, but I challenge you to name one big play Jones has made, ever.
Nice transition, huh? Lattimore started when Jones was injured last year. He turned in a number of big plays. Despite that, he went right back to the bench when Jones returned. Why? Because the Packers cannot have their inside linebackers out there making plays! That wouldn’t be Packers football!
Lattimore totaled 35 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble in 2013. He also blocked a punt. Yeah, that was a special teams play, but when is the last time the Packers had a guy block a punt? I don’t know and neither do you, which means it’s been a long-ass time. A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones couldn’t block a punt if you were kicking the ball and your wife was blocking.
Now, we realize there are some other guys we’re not mentioning here — Child Warrior Andy Mulumba; 2013 draft picks Sam Barrington and Nate Palmer; and 2014 fourth-round pick Carl Bradford, for example.
Frankly, we don’t feel like any of those guys will be given a legitimate chance to be a starter. So…
For the spot opposite Clay Matthews, we like Mike Neal. That means Julius Peppers spends the majority of his time on the defensive line. If Neal continues to improve, and there’s no reason to think he won’t, the Packers simply have to put him on the field.
In the middle, you’re getting another season of A.J. Hawk because the Green Bay Packers hate you. And as much as we hate to say it, we’re going to assume Brad Jones is the other starter.
History tells us Mike McCarthy simply will not go with the younger, more talented player at inside linebacker. Ever. He values the steady, mediocre play of the veteran every time. We’d like to think this year would be different, but can’t realistically believe it will.
The most interesting guy to watch may very well be Perry. With Peppers and Neal, there aren’t a lot of snaps left. Do the Packers try Perry at defensive end? Do they let him rot away on the bench? Do they try to force him into the lineup because he was a first-round pick? Or do they give up on the guy after two seasons?