Green Bay Packers linebacker Frank Zombo tries to tackle Chicago Bears runner Matt Forte during the game at Soldier Field on Monday, Sept. 27, 2010. / File/Press-Gazette
Position analysis series
Pete Dougherty breaks down the Packers by position heading into training camp:
Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Yr.
Desmond Bishop ILB 6-2 238 5
Diyral Briggs OLB 6-3 248 3
Brandon Chillar ILB 6-3 237 8
Ricky Elmore OLB 6-4 256 R
Robert Francois ILB/OLB 6-2 255 2
A.J. Hawk ILB 6-1 247 6
Cardia Jackson ILB 6-1 236 1
Brad Jones OLB/ILB 6-2 242 3
Clay Matthews OLB 6-3 255 3
Brady Poppinga OLB 6-3 250 7
D.J. Smith ILB 5-11 239 R
Erik Walden OLB 6-2 250 4
Matt Wilhelm* ILB 6-4 247 9
Curtis Young OLB 6-1 270 1
Say this for the Frank Zombo and Erik Walden: They were good enough at outside linebacker down the stretch last season for the Green Bay Packers to win the Super Bowl.
They might get a chance to do it again this year after the Packers chose to put their highest draft picks into positions other than a bookend playmaker to line up opposite Clay Matthews.
Heading into training camp this week, Zombo and Walden appear to be the front-runners for the starting job at right outside linebacker. There’s also no ruling out Brad Jones, whose rather bland play in starting five of the first seven games at that position last year might have been the product of a recurring shoulder injury that ended his season in late October.
There’s also a long shot in play, sixth-round draft pick Ricky Elmore, whom outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene picked out as a late-round prospect he especially liked.
But with Zombo, Walden and Jones, this should be one of the few position battles in Packers camp. And if no one distinguishes himself as superior, this could be the ultimate mix and match for defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who could run a platoon almost like a righty-left system in baseball, with his right outside linebacker based on situation and opponent.
“We probably do as much of that (situational playing) as anybody in the league,” Capers said this week. “We’ll change up to try to match an opponent if we feel we’ve got to play a lighter, more athletic group, or if we’ve got to play a bigger, stronger group. As you go through you try to put those things together in your mind because you know you’re going to need them through the course of the season, whether it be injury or to match up with your opponent. The league’s gotten so much that way.”
Jones became a forgotten man last season after showing promise as a rookie in 2009, when he started the final seven games because of Aaron Kampman’s season-ending knee injury. Last year, though, Jones injured his shoulder in the third week of training camp, and though he started five games and played in another in the first seven weeks wasn’t much of a factor.
His shoulder routinely popped out of its socket during the season, and it’s hard to think it wasn’t at least a factor in his performance (no sacks, passes knocked down or turnover plays) before the Packers shut him down after Week 7.
“Once he hurt it, it was never right after that,” Capers said.
But while Jones was out, the undrafted rookie Zombo and midseason street pickup Walden traded the starting job because of their injuries and played well enough to enter camp as the leading candidates for the job.
Zombo, who including playoffs started nine games and missed six others because of a knee injury, finished with four sacks in the regular season and one in his only postseason game, the Super Bowl. He forced two fumbles, and his regular-season total of 67 tackles ranked sixth on the team.
Walden, who started five games in Zombo’s absence before a knee injury in the NFC championship game sidelined him for the Super Bowl, had three sacks in the regular season (all against Chicago in the finale) and another in the playoffs.
In the 15 games (playoffs included) that Jones didn’t start, Zombo and Walden combined for eight sacks. Zombo was the more stout of the two against the run, and Walden the more explosive pass rusher, though both were OK as every-down players.
“We’ve got three guys there that know the system and have all played,” Capers said. “I think that will help, and it will help with the competition.”
Whoever is playing that position will be complementing one of the premier defensive players in the game in Matthews, 25, who as a second-year pro last year finished second in the voting for NFL defensive player of the year. His 13½ sacks ranked No. 4 in the league.
Packers opponents can expect to see plenty more of Matthews lining up at various positions across the defensive line to create confusion and favorable matchups on passing downs. Capers essentially does the same with another playmaker, Charles Woodson, in the secondary, giving him two players whose instincts and unpredictable alignments cause major problems for quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.
“That’s the good thing about those two guys,” Capers said, “they’re not only really good, athletic players, they’re smart guys and can see the big picture on how they fit into things.”
At inside linebacker, the Packers cast their lot with A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop with new contracts in the last six months and have told Nick Barnett they will cut him this evening. The reason for the move is age: Hawk and Bishop are 27, Barnett 30.
Hawk will average an astonishing $7.1 million in the first three years of his deal, and Bishop will make $19 million on his four-year contract. Hawk never became the difference maker General Manager Ted Thompson envisioned when he selected him with the No. 5 pick overall in the 2006 draft but won over the Packers last year with his clean quarterbacking of the defensive calls after Barnett’s season-ending wrist injury in Week 4.
“At the end of (last) season, A.J.’s our defensive leader,” Capers said. “He does a tremendous job out in front of our defensive huddle, does a tremendous job making all the calls and adjustments with the front seven guys.”
While Hawk replaced Barnett making defensive calls, Bishop replaced Barnett on the field, and the Packers’ defense was none the worse for the change. His 121 tackles were only 13 fewer than Hawk even though Bishop didn’t become a starter until Week 5.
Brandon Chillar, who will make $2.6 million in base salary and roster bonus, will be the top backup at inside linebacker, and as the best cover man of the group likely will get regular playing time on passing downs, provided he’s recovered sufficiently from a shoulder injury that ended his 2011 season after 11 games.
The Packers also drafted an inside linebacker, D.J. Smith of Appalachian State, in the sixth round. He’s short for the position (5-10 5/8) and didn’t test particularly well (4.75 seconds in the 40, 31-inch vertical jump) but showed all the intangibles and was a tackling machine (525 career tackles) at the Football Championship Series level in college.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.