Battle No. 1: Who starts with Hawk?
A.J. Hawk’s not going anywhere, not after a season of 153 tackles, five sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Hawk is coming off his best season in their five seasons together. He might be a flawed player, especially now that he’s 30, but it’s not as if there are better options on a roster that was bolstered only by a bunch of undrafted free agents.
So, the question is, who starts alongside Hawk?
“Go back and look at the stats,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “He was averaging about 10 tackles per game (in 2012) and they were impact tackles, tackles for loss. He was highly productive. He was able to go in, take the tight end away, as well. From a guy that was primarily a rusher (as an outside linebacker in 2009 through 2011), to go in and effectively play that sub position and be productive playing the run on first and second down, you have to give him some credit. We felt good enough about him to be a three-down player. He actually has gone in and taken that dime linebacker position and was doing quite well. Again, it goes back to if he can stay healthy or not. When he was healthy, he was highly productive.”
Moss hit on the issue with Jones. In 2013, he missed three-and-a-half games with an injured hamstring and the final one-and-three-quarters games with a sprained ankle. He also missed a game with an injured hamstring in 2011. In 2010, he missed the final nine games with an injured shoulder. If Jones doesn’t win the starting job, he might be sent packing, with his base salary going from $840,000 in 2013 to $2.5 million in 2014.
When Jones was out early in the season with the hamstring, Lattimore played well. When Jones was out late in the season with the ankle, Lattimore was merely OK. He was good enough to be given a restricted free-agent tender worth $1.431 million. As is the case with Jones, Lattimore converted to inside linebacker in 2012 and sometimes is a tick slow in recognizing the play.
“He’s a person that has conveyed that he wants to be a very productive player. He wants to be a playmaker. He wants to be an impact player,” Moss said. “So far, it’s been primarily on special teams, and we can only see if that’s going to be the same or see what’s going to happen as far as playing on defense. But there could be an opportunity there. If it does show up, you’ve got to be ready to take it and seize the moment.”
Battle No. 2: Who is the every-down ILB?
If Hawk and Lattimore wind up starting, then Hawk almost certainly will be the every-down player. If it’s Hawk and Jones, then they’ll battle to be the player who stays on the field when Capers sends in his third-and-long dime package.
Jones was the every-down inside linebacker in 2012 and the start of 2013. When he was sidelined by the hamstring, Hawk took over the every-down reins and wound up playing all but 10 snaps in the final 12 regular-season games.
At 6-foot-3, Jones offers good size and reach in coverage. Hawk is an enormous liability when forced to play man coverage but his instincts make him an underrated defender in zone. Capers frequently blitzed Hawk to keep him out of coverage, which is one reason why Hawk set a career high with five sacks.
Battle No. 3: Who provides depth?
The Packers took five inside linebackers into the regular season last year but might go with four this season. If it’s four, then Sam Barrington — a seventh-round pick last year — is the overwhelming favorite. He missed the second half of the season with an injured hamstring but performed well on special teams. He’s an OK athlete who is physical and intelligent.
The other options are undrafted rookies Jake Doughty and Joe Thomas and first-year player Korey Jones. Doughty (6-0, 234) is the best athlete on the unit and piled up more than 300 tackles as a two-year starter at Utah State, but about two-thirds of those were assisted. South Carolina State’s Thomas (6-1, 227) was an All-American and finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the top defensive player in FCS. He had more solo tackles, tackles for losses and sacks than Doughty. Jones was added just before the start of training camp. Unlike the player he replaced, Shaun Lewis, Jones is a tremendous athlete. He had 162 tackles in two seasons at Wyoming. He spent time with the NFL’s Cardinals as well as the CFL’s British Columbia Lions.
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.