Green Bay Packers linebacker Brad Jones runs through drills Tuesday during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
Green Bay Packers linebacker Jamari Lattimore during training camp practice Tuesday at Ray Nitschke Field. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
If Sam Barrington didn’t know better, he would’ve guessed Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore have been playing inside linebacker their entire careers instead of barely a full year.
However, the reality is it was about a year ago that Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers signed off on a Jones and Lattimore professional facelift, pushing the pair inside from their previous posts at outside linebacker.
“I couldn’t even tell,” said Barrington, a rookie linebacker taken in the seventh round of April’s NFL draft. “If I never checked into it myself, I probably would’ve never known those guys played outside linebacker.”
In many cases, the decision to swap a player’s position past their rookie season is a last-ditch effort to save an NFL career, but the Packers have a different take on that philosophy since Capers arrived in 2009.
The moves facilitated the Packers’ desire to get bigger outside and allowed the 6-foot-3, 242-pound Jones to emerge as a starting inside linebacker by midseason with Lattimore his top reserve.
The 27-year-old Jones’ ability to assimilate quickly and be reliable as the lone linebacker in the dime sub-package triggered the Packers to re-sign him this offseason to a three-year, $11.75 million contract and cut ties with Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith, both coming off season-ending injuries.
Bishop and Smith each went onto sign contracts in rapid succession with Minnesota and San Diego, respectively, but the Packers weren’t fazed by their remaining hand, embracing a unit of unproven reserves consisting of Lattimore, Robert Francois, Terrell Manning and Barrington.
A big reason for that confidence boiled down to performance on special teams and how it translates to other facets of the game.
“I think there’s a high correlation between defense and special teams and those guys have been two of our best special-teams players, and they’ve kind of worked their way up,” Capers said. “I think moving them to the inside linebacker really fits well with their abilities because they have good movement ability. They’re smart, they’re good communicators. They have the ability to accelerate and go make a play.”
It wasn’t so much Jones and Lattimore couldn’t play outside linebacker — both earned and maintained roster spots at the position despite limited investment on the Packers’ part — but it had more to do with a more-stringent approach to how the team viewed outside linebackers.
Early in Capers’ tenure with the Packers, the team tended to be more lax in that definition, drafting Jones in the seventh round of the 2009 draft despite weighing around 232 pounds. Two years later, Lattimore made the team as an undrafted 228-pound outside linebacker after converting from a defensive end at Middle Tennessee State.
Both players added roughly 10 pounds over the duration of their outside careers and carved out roles on special teams, but still weren’t in that 255-260 range Capers prefers.
So the organization got creative.
“Every team I think that transitions from 4-3 to 3-4, it goes through a period of time to where all of a sudden you see guys at certain positions start to look a little differently than they did before,” said Capers, whose outside linebacker group averages a listed weight of 253.4 pounds.
“This group of outside linebackers are bigger, more physical, more in that 255-60 pound range as opposed to 240.”
That decision pushed Jones and Lattimore into a crowded inside linebackers room with two supremely paid talents in Bishop and Hawk leading the charge. Both held onto a roster spot, but didn’t venture far from special teams through the first month of the season.
Already missing Bishop with a torn hamstring, the Packers lost Smith to a season-ending knee injury in Houston on Oct. 14 and trotted out a remade Jones, who wound up starting the next 10 games and finishing the year with 77 tackles, two sacks and four pass deflections.
“I think being able to be at the position for an extended period of time, you can see the flow of the game better,” Jones said. “I think the change is good. I think it worked out. I think it’s worked out well. I’m just going to try to keep taking steps and be the best.”
Lattimore saw only eight defensive snaps last season, but developed into a leader on special teams, where he registered seven tackles in 14 games. Since returning from an illness early in camp, he’s shown more tenacity and confidence in his assignments.
The Packers have a financial investment in all six inside linebackers they’re currently carrying on the 90-man roster, which could make for some interesting decisions later this month.
However, the only thing Lattimore is concerned with at the moment is making the 53 for a third consecutive year.
“Brad learned faster than I did. He’s making plays and that’s all you can ask for from a guy,” Lattimore said. “We made the transition, to me, it’s still hard but you just have to stay focused, tune in and try to get plays down pat and not mess up as much.”
While injuries still are getting the best of Bishop in Minnesota — a groin pull has him on the roster bubble — the Packers are pleased with their options. Capers feels Manning and Barrington show the same characteristics as Jones, Lattimore and Francois as special-teams stars who could blossom into defensive mainstays.
As for the renovation project the organization put into motion a year ago, it’s paid premium dividends thus far.
“It’s worked out very well for Brad and Jamari,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Frankly, the experience of playing outside and inside and ability to float in and out of different personnel groupings and have the responsibilities of an outside linebacker as part of their inside linebacker responsibilities has really helped us from a game-planning situation.
“It’s help broaden their spectrum as a linebacker, as a rusher. I think experience has really benefited those guys.”
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