KANSAS CITY – Listen in during the Green Bay Packers’ inside linebackers meetings and you’ll see Robert Francois is rarely the individual who sets the topic of conversation.
More often than not, the 28-year-old veteran sits quietly, keeps his attention dialed into whatever task is in front of him and seldom ventures outside of the boundaries of what’s required verbally.
A stalwart on special teams, the 6-foot-2, 250-pound linebacker has preserved a place in the locker room for the better part of three years by keeping his head down, his sentences short and using the football field as his translator.
“There isn’t too much talking whenever he’s walking around or any other time,” second-year linebacker Terrell Manning said. “Sometimes he has his good moods and you see him smiling, but most of the time you see him walking around with his bag.”
In many ways, Francois is a throwback. Like a shift worker punching in down the street at Georgia-Pacific, the Boston College graduate carries himself with a strict blue-collar disposition.
Be that as it may, Francois’ introverted tendencies can’t disguise what’s been the best camp he’s had since being signed as a street free agent in 2009.
Francois’ previous four years of service have aided him into becoming the team’s top reserve at inside linebacker behind A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, an indication of how far he’s come since bouncing between the active roster and practice squad his first two years in Green Bay.
Assured of more opportunity after re-signing with the Packers in March, Francois is slated to start across from Hawk during Thursday’s preseason finale against Kansas City in place of an injured Jones, whose hamstring flared up during last Friday’s 17-10 loss to Seattle.
“He’s identifying his skill set and we’re trying to do the best job we can to put him in positions where those can be highlighted,” inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “But just in scheme of things he’s continuing to get a better understanding and working very hard at staying focused. He’s a very diligent person. It seems like he has a mindset of knowing, ‘If I stay the course, it’s going to pay off.’”
While Hawk and the rest of the first-team defense’s reps will be limited, Francois should see a heavy workload as the Packers try to get a pulse on their backup linebackers, a group that consists of third-year pro Jamari Lattimore, rookie Sam Barrington and Manning.
Last season, the Packers took the backup inside linebacker spots a lot more literal with Francois serving as the primary replacement for ultra-durable Hawk and Lattimore working back Jones, a trend that carried over into the organized team activities in June.
However, Francois’ play has boosted him to the top option at both spots during a preseason where he’s registered five tackles, a sack and one pass deflection with other quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Packers came into camp with only the six inside linebackers and the preseason performance of all have warranted a conversation if all could be retained past this weekend’s mandatory 53-man roster cuts.
The one who doesn’t appear to have any cause for concern is Francois, but don’t confuse a quiet nature with complacency. As his teammates and a few unnecessary roughness penalties will attest, few players are fiercer once they step onto the field.
“Robert Francois is a good guy, man. He brings intensity out there,” Manning said. “If you think of somebody who is rough and tough on other teams, we see that in Francois. We called him the champ around here because there aren’t too many guys who step to him and come out of there happy.”
The Packers often preach at all positions about their “next man up” philosophy, but inside linebacker tends to be the unit that’s stressed the most throughout the course of a 16-game season.
A year ago, the Packers burned through both Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith before turning to Jones after both suffered season-ending injuries.
Jones proved to be a perfect fit. A special-teams aficionado who made a switch from outside to inside linebacker before the 2012 season, Jones finished the year with 77 tackles and two sacks in 16 games and 10 starts.
When the team looks at Francois, they see a similar ability. Although he didn’t see a single snap on defense last year, a career-high 13 tackles on special teams over 348 third-unit snaps told the Packers he's getting it.
“The special teams are almost like a prelude to what a player can do,” Moss said. “It’s almost a snapshot of the skills they deploy on special teams and what shows up, the ability to make a play, be disciplined, physicality, effort, the ability to be consistent on a play to play level.
"The interesting thing about some of the (special-teams) concepts is you make a mistake, there’s a potential to be something catastrophic. The margin for error – you can’t make those mistakes in special teams. It’s a great proving ground.”
-email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.