The Green Bay Packers have a potentially problematic situation at outside linebacker.
As it stands right now, the Packers will start second-year man Brad Jones opposite Clay Matthews. Even though the left outside linebacker spot was considered one of the Packers’ primary weaknesses, the team did absolutely nothing to address it during the draft.
The Press Gazette’s Mike Vanermause and several other media types have called outside linebacker the Packers’ most pressing need of the offseason. For the record, I’ve repeatedly said the team’s biggest need was left tackle, simply because the position is primarily responsible for protecting the franchise, Aaron Rodgers, and is currently manned by a past-his-prime injury risk in Chad Clifton. The Packers obviously agreed, as evidenced by the selection of Iowa left tackle Bryan Bulaga in the first round of the draft.
But back to outside linebacker.
Jones made seven starts last season in place of Aaron Kampman, who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the offseason. On the year, Jones had 33 tackles and four sacks. Comparably, Kampman had 42 tackles and 3.5 sacks in nine starts.
Jones certainly didn’t play poorly and he showed flashes as a pass rusher, but let’s be clear – Jones was a seventh-round draft choice for a reason. Primarily, Jones needs to add weight and strength to be able to effectively take on blockers.
Beyond that, you don’t have to look any further than the Packers’ playoff loss in Arizona to see what sort of pressure the Packers were able to generate with their current group of linebackers. Matthews was the only Packers’ defender who got close to Cardinals’ quarterback Kurt Warner. The rest of the rushers, Jones included, were non-factors, so you could see how the Packers might want to upgrade the outside linebacker position.
Obviously, Jones will improve in his second year, but that may not be enough.
We suggested the possibility of signing Adalius Thomas, who was released by the New England Patriots earlier this week. If nothing else, Thomas provides depth the Packers sorely need and serves as a mentor for Jones. The Packers are dangerously thin at outside linebacker with Kampman’s defection and the recent release/retirement of Jeremy Thompson. After Matthews and Jones, the Packers have only Brady Poppinga, who’s a notch below serviceable, and second-year rookie free agents Cyril Obiozor and Robert Francois.
Here’s a scary thought: Matthews gets injured and is forced to miss an extended number of games. If you think the Packers are going to do anything with an outside linebacker combo of Jones and Poppinga, then I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
But let’s assume everyone stays healthy and Jones shows improvement, but doesn’t turn into a pass-rushing force, which I’d say is a fair assumption. How are the Packers going to generate a pass rush with opposing offenses focusing their attention on Matthews?
They may move one of their inside linebackers to the outside in passing situations.
“I think both Nick (Barnett) and Brandon Chillar have outside pass-rush ability. I’m not saying we’re going to do it all the time, but it’s definitely an option for us that we’ve talked about,” Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy said.
He’s right. Both Chillar and Barnett have shown the ability to get to the quarterback when given the chance and moving one of them outside on passing downs wouldn’t hurt the Packers.
Inside linebacker is one of the strongest positions on the team. Certainly, the Packers don’t want A.J. Hawk on the field on passing downs – he’s a liability in coverage and is the polar opposite of a playmaker – but bringing in Desmond Bishop to man the inside is a viable option.
Pairing Bishop with Barnett or Chillar on the inside gives the Packers the option to move the other to the left side opposite Matthews. It forms what could be a fairly solid unit and hopefully one that can apply more pressure than the unit that got torched by the Cardinals.
Clearly, it’s an interesting option, but it’s far from a cure all.
I still say the Packers’ best option is bringing in Thomas.
Looking at the depth chart behind Matthews and Jones is frightening.