Thursday, August 9, 2012

2012 Training Camp Volume 8: Inside Linebackers

In Dom Capers 3-4 defense, the inside linebacker position is key in calling signals in the huddle.  That job has belonged primarily to AJ Hawk over the past 3 seasons.  Hawk has been the subject of everything from criticism of his play after being the 5th overall selection in the 2006 NFL draft to the subject of trade rumors after he played a small handful of snaps following week 1 of the 2010 season.  Every year it seems as though Hawk comes into camp “in phenomenal shape” and “ready to emerge as a top-tier player”.  What many don’t realize is that what he does do on the field isn’t all about making tons of tackles and lighting up the highlight reel like a Ray Lewis in Baltimore does.  He’s rarely out of position and is a smart player.  He has been called a “lunch pail” guy, meaning he comes in and works hard every day.  He hasn’t missed a lot of time due to injury.  There was some talk that the team overpaid him when they signed him to a new 5 year deal worth $33.75 million in March of 2011.  While that kind of money is certainly best spent on difference-making players, keep in mind that Thompson likes “his” guys.   In other words, he doesn’t give up easily on his first rounders.  With Hawk, what you see is what you get but come season’s start, he will be on the field at ILB to start the game.  What the Packers see in Hawk is worth more than any “maybe” that the other guys bring.

At the other starting ILB spot will be Desmond Bishop.  After spending his first 3 seasons as a backup LB, Bishop emerged in 2010 when Nick Barnett went down to an early season injury.  He flashed some brilliant play during preseason 2009 and many fans were clamoring him to get on the field.  When he did, he quickly made an impact.  In a 2010 matchup vs. the Vikings, Bish, as he’s called, stepped in front of a short pass from Brett Favre and he was off to the end zone.  He has great instincts and gets after the football.  He recovered the fumble in Super Bowl XLV that led to the final scoring drive and eventual win.  He’s got a good motor and in-game speed.  He’s a fiery leader and can blow up a play at any given time.  The only question mark right now is when his injured calf will allow him to get back to work full speed.  He should be back before long and there’s currently no worry that this is a long-term injury.  There’s just not enough other talent there to unseat Bishop at the other ILB spot.  This position remains unchanged as far as starters.

Also in the hunt at ILB are DJ Smith, Robert Francois, Jamari Lattimore, Brad Jones and 2012 draft pick Terrell Manning.  The team will likely keep 3 of these players.  Manning will almost certainly be kept to develop and see what is there, which theoretically leaves 2 spots.  DJ Smith was said to be pushing hard for one of the starting spots and he played very well in relief of Bishop when he was hurt last year.  Smith is a lock.  Okay, down to 1 spot.  Based on last year, this will likely come down to Brad Jones and Francois.  Recall that Jones was a starting OLB in the latter part of 2009 and heading into the 2010 season until he was hurt and placed on IR.  Last year, Jones was used sparingly among the rotation at OLB but his value is apparent to the Pack.  As a regular contributor on special teams and with a few roster spots going to other positions (WR and QB), the team will either have to move Jones inside or they would likely have to let him walk at the end of camp.  Like Hawk, Jones isn’t a flashy player but he’s smart and has become one of the quiet leaders on the team over the past 3 seasons.  My call is that Jones is the last ILB kept and the team will likely let Francois and Lattimore go.

Francois is an interesting case because he, like Smith, was a solid contributor at ILB last season when Hawk was hurt.  He posted that nice leaping INT of a Matt Stafford pass in the Thanksgiving Day game last year.  If the Packers had it their way, they’d likely keep him but this will have to come down to their l sacrificing a spot at another position group.  It’s not out of the question but my best guess is that they let him go and hope their current crop can stay healthy.  He is sure to catch on somewhere with another team sooner than later if he hits the open market. This group will be called on often to get their hands dirty and help stop the run as well as create pressure up the middle.  While they aren’t “flashy” by nature, they will need to channel their inner beast this year in order to be more effective and get the defense off the field quickly and swiftly.

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

 - Jason Perone (@WSB_Jason)

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