Packers rebuilding at inside linebacker
PHOENIX –Ted Thompson despises having to release any player, but you can bet the decision to cut A.J. Hawk will go down as one of his most difficult in a decade as Green Bay Packers general manager.
The move required little explanation from a business perspective. The nine-year veteran appeared to have lost a step last season. Hawk no longer could be counted on as an every-down inside linebacker and was demoted to a rotational player in the 3-4 base defense during the final stretch of the season.
That didn't make the decision any easier from a personal standpoint. Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy remain fond of their former first-round pick. Hawk was a durable everyman, who repeatedly denied he was playing injured despite having surgery to remove bone spurs from an ankle after the season.
It also became painfully apparent that the Packers need to improve the position. So the call was made last month to release Hawk and Brad Jones and venture into the unknown of the offseason. With no handpicked successors, the weeks and months ahead will set the course for the rebuild.
"It's just the natural progression of your roster and of your team and as the NFL as a whole," Thompson said Monday at the NFL's annual meeting. "Time moves on. I was at a workout (Sunday) where it was a veteran combine workout. There were guys who did remarkably well and there were guys who I remember when they were rookies and they were so much faster and quicker and better.
"It's not any fault of these young men, they're young men to me. But life goes on. Age does have an effect on players. There is a shelf life."
Thompson and his front office came to that conclusion last year on the defensive line when they chose not to re-sign the starting base defense of Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson. Instead, they signed Letroy Guion, moved B.J. Raji back to nose tackle and committed themselves to younger prospects.
The plan was largely a success. Raji was lost to a season-ending biceps injury, but Guion became a difference-maker inside. The opportunity also helped 2012 fourth-round draft pick Mike Daniels, who responded with a career-high 41 tackles and 5½ sacks.
For the strides the line made, the run defense struggled for the first half of the season. The Packers were giving up 153 rushing yards per game at the bye week before cutting that to 86 yards per game following Clay Matthews' shift to inside linebacker.
Thompson was evasive when asked Monday about where Matthews is best used, but there's a good argument for continuing to line him up inside.
If the Packers are bent on keeping Matthews outside, they have only one inside linebacker with regular-season experience in Sam Barrington, who usurped Hawk and Jones for a starting job at midseason. He was playing all three downs during the NFC championship game and lining up next to Matthews in the nickel sub package.
They have some in-house options with 2014 fourth-round pick Carl Bradford and 2013 sixth-rounder Nate Palmer. Both players started outside before sliding inside in the team's preseason finale against Kansas City.
Bradford made little impact as an outside rusher, but earned a roster spot on the strength of a seven-tackle performance in the preseason finale. A virtual redshirt, he wasn't active for another game the rest of the season. According to Thompson, Bradford has spent his offseason training in Green Bay.
Barrington is a good example of how far a player can come in a year. A seventh-round pick in 2013, Barrington played one defensive snap as a rookie before breaking out for 53 tackles and a sack in 14 games this year.
"Carl needs to take a huge jump this year," McCarthy said. "He's a guy I'm excited about, you know working closely with this upcoming offseason. He's definitely in the category of needing to make a jump from Year 1 to 2."
The Packers have two other undrafted prospects in Joe Thomas and Josh Francis, but likely will need to bring in reinforcements through the draft.
It's a route Thompson probably should've taken last year after the defense struggled during the final stretch of the 2013 season. However, his aversion to drafting for need resulted in no serious camp competition for either Hawk or Jones.
The Packers admitted the mistake in parting ways with the two linebackers shortly after the offseason began. Now, there is no safety net. This move forces the team to get better at inside linebacker rather than making it optional like the past few seasons.
As the Packers move forward, Hawk, the team's all-time leading tackler, will get a chance to revitalize his career in Cincinnati, where last month he signed a two-year, $3.25 million deal with a $500,000 signing bonus.
"A.J. was quite the warrior," Thompson said. "Sometimes I think underappreciated. It was a hard thing. Like I say, I like players, I like keeping players, I like hoarding them and hugging them and doing all that and certainly (someone) that has been with us that long and played that much football with us, that's a hard thing for me."
The Packers' predicament at inside linebacker mirrors their lingering issues at safety from a year ago. They solved it when they took Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the 21st overall selection. He made 103 tackles and three sacks (including playoffs) as a rookie.
It's nearly impossible to project what options will be available to the Packers once the 30th pick in next month's draft rolls around. Based on early projections, they'll have the pick of the litter should they choose to take an inside linebacker in the early rounds.
It's not heralded as an overly deep draft, but UCLA's Eric Kendricks, Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney and Clemson's Stephone Anthony are thought of as second-round picks in NFL Draft Scout's latest projections.
Thompson isn't fretting. They might have waited a year or two too long to address the position, but he believes the situation will sort itself out one way or another.
"You have to keep marching forward," Thompson said. "You have to keep going and you can't worry about every bump in the road. You can't worry yourself to death because, 'Oh, woe is me. What are we going to do about this? What are we going to do about that?'
"We have some people who can evaluate players and we have some coaches who can coach them, and there we go. We've done this before at different positions. We've done this before."