2014 free-agent countdown
20. Chris Banjo, safety
19. Seneca Wallace, quarterback
18. Kahlil Bell, running back
17. Robert Francois, inside linebacker
16. Marshall Newhouse, offensive lineman
15. C.J. Wilson, defensive lineman
14. M.D. Jennings, safety
13. Jamari Lattimore, inside linebacker
The Green Bay Packers turned a lot of heads when they parted ways with Desmond Bishop last spring and committed themselves to an unproven assortment of inside linebackers.
They re-signed Brad Jones to start next to veteran A.J. Hawk, and were counting on former undrafted free agents Robert Francois and Jamari Lattimore in case of emergency.
They ended up needing all the help they could get at the position.
Hawk lived up to his mantra of being an iron man, but Jones missed four games and was hobbled during the final stretch of the season by hamstring and ankle injuries.
Francois was the next up at the position, but tore his Achilles tendon 12 snaps after Jones exited a 22-9 win over Detroit in October. That led to Lattimore seeing the most defensive playing time he’d seen in his three NFL seasons.
After playing only eight defensive snaps in 2012, Lattimore played 265 in place of Jones and looked more confident in his second full season playing inside.
Originally signed as an undersized defensive end out of Middle Tennessee State, the Packers first played Lattimore at outside linebacker before moving both he and Jones inside in 2012.
Long-limbed and athletic, Lattimore unleashed the same aggression he often showed on special teams in his defensive reps to finish with 35 tackles and two sacks.
He struggled as a last-minute replacement for Jones in the regular-season finale against Chicago, but put plenty of film out there to make a case for a restricted tender this offseason.
“Nothing’s holding Jamari back,” inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “When Brad got hurt, he came in and was very effective and did a great job. Any time Brad went down and tweaked his ankle in the latter half of the season, I thought Jamari stepped in and made some plays. Nothing is holding Jamari back. He was very effective, very productive.”
The Packers may need to strongly consider drafting an inside linebacker in May to get more play-making from the position, but Lattimore has cemented himself as a capable special-teamer.
After seventh-round pick Sam Barrington landed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, the Packers finished the year with only Lattimore and undrafted rookie Victor Aiyewa as backups at the position, though Aiyewa played strictly special teams.
Along with third-year safety M.D. Jennings, the Packers will need to extend a low-round tender worth at least $1.3 million to guarantee Lattimore’s services for next season. The improvement he showed in 2013 added with his play on special teams may necessitate an offer.
“Jamari will get better with just getting more reps at everything,” Moss said. “He’s still fairly new, he’s still fairly young, so he has a lot of football in front of him if he just stays healthy and works hard. Everything else will take care of itself.”
Editor's note: Prior to the start of the new league year in March, Press-Gazette Media is counting down the top 20 unrestricted, restricted and exclusive right free agents the Green Bay Packers will have to decide on this offseason.
No. 13 Jamari Lattimore, third-year linebacker
The skinny: Restricted free agent.
The snaps: 536 total (265 defense, 271 special teams) in 15 games.
The stats: 35 tackles, two sacks, one pass deflection, one forced fumble.
The 2013 salary: $560,250.