|26||Nick Perry||OLB||6-3||265||24||3||Southern California|
|28||Jamari Lattimore||ILB||6-2||237||25||4||Middle Tennessee St.|
Jones: Jones will battle Lattimore to be the starting inside linebacker opposite A.J. Hawk, right?
“You said ‘battle,’” interjected linebackers coach Winston Moss. “Brad’s our starter, until I’m told otherwise. Brad has fought through injuries as of late but, when Brad was healthy and Brad was dialed in, Brad was playing his (butt) off.”
Before the draft, the outside consensus was the Packers needed to use a premium draft pick to upgrade the inside linebacker position. The Packers, however, not only didn’t use a premium pick, they didn’t use any picks at all. The only additions were undrafted free agents Jake Doughty, Joe Thomas and Shaun Lewis.
That would seem like a major vote of confidence for Jones, who played well in 2012 when injuries sidelined Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith for the season. In 10 starts, he tallied 99 tackles, including seven for losses. As the every-down inside linebacker, Jones broke up six passes. In 2013, however, hamstring and ankle injuries limited him to 12 games. He finished with 98 tackles, including eight for losses, and broke up only two passes as he lost the every-down role to Hawk.
“It goes back to if he can stay healthy or not,” Moss said. “When he was healthy, he was highly productive”
Perry: Can the 2012 first-round pick stay healthy?
In the first five games of last season, Perry had three sacks, including two that forced fumbles. Then came a broken foot that sidelined him for five of the next six games and basically ruined his season.
In 11 games, Perry finished with four sacks and three forced fumbles. Always a bit out of place in space, the injury made Perry look foolish at times — most notably on a 33-yard catch-and-run by Chicago’s Matt Forte in Week 17.
On the plus side, there is the big-play production. He also led the outside linebackers in tackles per snap (8.90 snaps per tackle) and missed only one tackle. On the negative side, he’s played in only 17 of a possible 32 games in two seasons. He missed the entire offseason, as well, much to the frustration of the coaching staff.
The Packers hedged their bets by re-signing Neal, signing Julius Peppers and drafting Carl Bradford. If Perry can stay healthy, he’ll have a chance to be an impact player in a potentially expanded role. If Perry can’t stay healthy, he’s going to have a hard time getting consistent playing time.
Neal: As with Perry, injuries were the story of Neal’s career. The 2010 second-round pick played in just nine of a possible 32 regular-season games in his first two seasons, then missed the first four games of 2012 serving a league suspension.
Neal, however, salvaged his career.
He was so impressive with 4.5 sacks in 11 games as an interior rusher in 2012 that he was given a greatly expanded role in 2013. Neal dropped about 25 pounds to take some of the stress off of a troublesome knee and became a hybrid defensive lineman/outside linebacker. Forced to play almost exclusively at outside linebacker due to injuries, Neal answered the call with five sacks and 16 quarterback hits while playing all 16 games in 2013. There were few bigger plays last season than his sack-strip of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, which set up Green Bay for the winning touchdown. However, he finished last on the position group with 12.3 snaps per tackle and missed more tackles (11) than the rest of the outside linebackers combined (nine).
Neal was retained in free agency with a two-year deal worth $8 million. He’ll join Julius Peppers and Perry at the “elephant” position.
“Mike will be like like he was last year. He’ll play in a number of different spots,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He brings versatility. He’s a guy you saw played over 700 snaps. He played the most snaps as an outside backer last year. He gained experience there. I think he’s a lot further along at that position than really what he was at any time last year. He’s a guy when you put your dime defense out there, he can play either inside or outside. He gives you flexibility in terms of if you want to leave him inside and go from a four-down look or if you want to go to a 3-2 look, he can become an outside guy for you.”
Lattimore: After recording 14 tackles on special teams during his first two seasons, Lattimore finally got his shot on defense due to Jones’ injuries. He responded with 38 tackles, including two sacks and three for losses, in four starts and a total of six games in which he received extended playing time. He forced a fumble against Pittsburgh that led to a touchdown, and he blocked a punt and recovered an onside kick against Chicago.
Lattimore was given a $1.43 million restricted free agent tender. Based on money and the offseason practices, he’ll be given every opportunity to earn a significant role on defense.
“I like his athletic abilities,” Capers said. “He’s a guy, you saw him make plays in space where he had one-on-one tackles in space because he can gather and he has enough athletic ability against some of the skill you play against. When Brad went down, he had some very good games for us where he impacted the game with his athletic ability. You can never have enough good athletes out there and Jamari just gives us another athletic option, I think.”
Starks: Entering last season, Starks had played in only 22 of a possible 48 regular-season games. In 2013, Starks played in 13 games and led the NFL with a 5.5-yard average. All of his career-high three touchdowns covered at least 25 yards, and six of his 89 carries went for 20-plus yards.
What limits Starks’ playing time is his skill in the passing game. He’s an OK receiver and not particularly trustworthy in protection.
With running backs basically ignored on the free-agent market, Starks returned to Green Bay with a two-year, $3.25 million contract, which included a $725,000 signing bonus.
“Starks, anywhere else in the league, he’s a starter,” running backs coach Sam Gash said. “He’s here, he understands what his role is, and that’s the great thing about him. He’s going to come out and be the same guy every day. He’s going to work hard, he’s going to give you everything he’s got, and that’s it. All I ask for is an honest day’s work every single day that you come in the building.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.