Training camp preview: Packers opt for durable LBs Hawk, Jones at inside

Jul. 24, 2013
Green Bay Packers training camp preview: Linebacke...
Green Bay Packers training camp preview: Linebacke...: Pete Dougherty and Mike Vandermause look at the Packers' receivers heading into training camp. (July 23)
The Green Bay Packers linebacker re-signed Jones to a three-year, $11.75 million contract in March, but it's unclear whether he'll have a starting role. File/Gannett Wisconsin Media

PlayerHt.Wt. Yr.
Clay Matthews, OLB6-32555
Nick Perry, OLB6-32652
Dezman Moses, OLB6-22492
Nate Palmer, OLB6-2248R
Andy Mulumba, OLB6-3260R
Donte Savage, OLB6-1252R
Brad Jones, ILB6-32425
A.J. Hawk, ILB6-12428
Robert Francois, ILB6-22504
Jamari Lattimore, ILB6-22373
Terrell Manning, ILB6-22372
Sam Barrington, ILB6-1235R
Jarvis Reed, ILB6-1245R


The Green Bay Packers’ surprising release of Desmond Bishop in mid-June revealed their misgivings about his comeback from a torn hamstring tendon last season.

Bishop wasn’t particularly fast or explosive for an inside linebacker even at his best, and the Packers clearly thought he would be a diminished athlete returning from an injury that sidelined him all last season and through the team’s workouts this spring and summer.

The move also showed that the Packers consider Brad Jones a viable starter in Bishop’s place and feel OK about the group of mostly young players backing up Jones and A.J. Hawk this year. That convinced the Packers that Bishop and his initial replacement, D.J. Smith (knee reconstruction), were expendable after their serious injuries last season.

“We played a lot of the season with A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones,” said Dom Capers, the Packers’ defensive coordinator. “We were fortunate, of course, when Bish went down and D.J. stepped in, and then we had to go to Brad, we thought Brad did a good job. We like his length in there. He’s a smart guy, he’s a good communicator. So we’ve got two guys in there we think are smart players that can make all the calls.”

Jones won over the Packers with his play in the final 10 regular-season games plus playoffs after Smith blew out his knee in Week 6. Jones immediately went from a backup to ahead of Hawk as the every-down inside linebacker who remained on the field in the dime. He finished with two sacks, six passes defended and one turnover play (a forced fumble).

When the Packers re-signed Jones to a three-year, $11.75 million contract in March, it was unclear whether he was to be a starter, or to play a role similar to Brandon Chillar at the same position a few years earlier. From 2008 to ’10, Chillar was a regular member of the Packers’ nickel and dime packages and viable fallback for full-time play when injuries hit.

Bishop’s release clarified that. At 6-feet-3 and 243 pounds, Jones has more length and speed than Hawk, who is 6-1, and Smith, who at only 5-1058 started the first six games in place of Bishop before blowing out his knee at Houston on Oct. 14. The Packers cut Smith a month after they’d re-signed Jones.

“You have a player, No. 1, that’s very smart, prepares very well,” inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said of Jones. “Plays with high energy, very smart to put himself in great position. In his pass technique he does a good job. We didn’t use him a lot to pressure (i.e., blitz), but coming from an outside linebacker position he’s comfortable rushing the passer, he has that ability. Very versatile. A three-down player.”

Hawk, 29, is back for his eighth season as a starter after accepting this offseason a pay cut of nearly $2 million, from $5.45 million in salary and bonuses to $3.6 million.

Hawk never has become the playmaker the Packers projected when general manager Ted Thompson selected him at No. 5 overall in the 2006 draft. In his seven NFL seasons, he has 13½ sacks, eight interceptions, three fumbles forced and four fumbles recovered. In the last two seasons, he wasn’t involved in any turnover plays.

But as important as anything to the Packers, Hawk has missed only two of a possible 112 regular-season games. By contrast, Bishop missed 27 of 96 regular-season games in his six years.

“Availability is one of the keys,” Capers said. “Everybody looks at ability, but sometimes at the end of the year you look at the guy’s ability to stay on the field, do the things he’s asked to do.”

Behind Jones and Hawk, fourth-year pro Robert Francois is the most veteran inside linebacker. He’s been a core special teams player the last 2½ years, and when he got the chance to play with Hawk out for 2½ games in 2011 he had two interceptions.

But the Packers also see potential behind Francois in third-year pro Jamari Lattimore, who last year moved from outside linebacker to inside; Terrell Manning, a fifth-round draft pick last season; and Sam Barrington, a seventh-round pick this year.

The undrafted Lattimore (6-2, 237) couldn’t get big enough to hold up at outside linebacker in ‘11 so last year moved to inside linebacker, which is looking like his best position. He’s caught the coaching staff’s attention as a core special teams player for two years and in fact last season was named the Packers’ special teams captain in the playoffs. His length and athleticism make him an attractive developmental inside linebacker.

“His upside, his potential,” Moss said, “when you get a guy that has his height and his linear body makeup, he’s ideal to play against those teams that have those very effective tight ends that look like basketball players.

“You love the players that have the Brandon Chillar type of body, the Brad Jones type of body. Absolutely. Jamari’s proved he’s a very effective special teams player. I’m glad to have a chance to work with him, because when we give him that opportunity, he could be something.”

Manning’s rookie year last season was close to a washout, in part because he might not have been ready mentally for the NFL after entering the draft as a junior, and in part because of an intestinal parasite that severely weakened him in training camp.

“It looks like he can be a really good blitzer,” Moss said, “he’s athletic, he can run. He’s still going through the process of understanding, comprehending, getting comfortable. Some guys get further along, some guys not as much. He’s a guy that’s slowly making progress.”

Barrington (6-1, 235) probably will have to be a special teams regular to help the Packers this season.

“We like Barrington’s athletic ability in terms of being able to move in space,” Capers said.

At outside linebacker, 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry has had a year to acclimate to his move from defensive end in college. Perry played in only six games before a wrist injury ended his ’12 season with two sacks. He was mainly a bull rusher who tried to squeeze the front side of the pocket to help Clay Matthews’ rushing from the back side.

“Normally with these guys that are college defensive ends with their hands down, the greatest difference is from Year 1 to Year 2,” Capers said. “I think (Perry) only played a little over 100 snaps for us, but through the OTAs he came back and you could see him getting more comfortable. He has some strength and explosiveness and ability to run. I think he’s a powerful guy. Training camp will be important for him. He looked a lot different in OTAs than he did at this time last year.”

Ssecond-year pro Dezman Moses had four sacks as a rookie while splitting time with Erik Walden in Perry’s place last season. And among the Packers’ rookies are two prospects of note, sixth-round pick Nate Palmer of Illinois State and undrafted Andy Mulumba of Eastern Michigan, though both were college defensive ends who probably will be developmental players.

But a player to watch in camp is Mike Neal, the defensive lineman who worked extensively at outside linebacker this offseason. Neal is one of the Packers’ best inside pass rushers, but in the offseason he dropped weight into the mid-280-pound range and looked surprisingly comfortable making the pass-coverage drops at outside linebacker. If he plays well there in camp, he could give Capers more flexibility to surprise and confuse quarterbacks.

“You could change from week to week,” Capers said. “It opens up a lot more things you can do. (Neal) can line up as an inside rusher and he can move and become an outside rusher. He can line up as an outside rusher and we can (move) and he can become an inside rusher. With where the game is today and the more athletic ability and more guys that you can put on the field that have the ability to either rush or drop gives you more flexibility, more speed on the field.” and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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