2014 Packers Training Camp Battles: Linebackers

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Brad Jones

Brad Jones

As bad as the Green Bay Packers defensive line was in 2013, the linebackers were nearly as bad. Unlike the defensive line, which will look a lot different in 2014 than it did in 2013, the group of linebackers remains pretty much the same.

With one notable exception, of course.

The problems of 2013 had a lot to do with injuries, as well as the usual ineffective play in the middle.

Clay Matthews’ annual hamstring injury, coupled with a broken thumb (the same thumb, twice) limited him to 11 games. Just for the record, Matthews hasn’t played a full 16-game season since his rookie year.

Nick Perry, a first-round pick in 2012, was also limited to 11 games with a foot injury.

On the inside, Brad Jones was limited to 12 games with — you guessed it — a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, A.J. Hawk was his usual A.J. Hawk self. In other words, underwhelming.

We wouldn’t be surprised if the linebackers are the weak spot of this year’s defense, but somebody’s got to start and we know who two of those guys are. The other two spots should be somewhat up for grabs.

Here’s the lay of the land.

Clay Matthews
Well, we all know Matthews is starting at one outside linebacker spot. That is, until he pulls up lame with his 2014 hamstring injury. Anyway, he should at least make it to week one fully healthy.

Julius Peppers
Peppers should be a shoo-in as the second outside linebacker. You know, if he had ever played outside linebacker in his career. The reality is this. The Packers are probably going to try Peppers at outside linebacker. They’re also going to move him around, which means he’ll be playing some of his traditional position, defensive end. As we noted yesterday, we think Peppers and the Packers are better off with him starting at defensive end, which brings us to these next two guys.

Nick Perry
Perry’s 2013 stat line looks like this: 11 games, 6 starts, 28 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles. Not exactly what you’d expect from a first-round pick. To be fair, Perry played in a number of those games with an injured foot. We’ll give him kudos for that, but the thing you notice about Perry is that you don’t notice him. Unless you’re an offensive lineman, that’s not good. Perry makes the occasional play, but has never shown any flashes of dominance or even consistency. Maybe this is his year though.

Mike Neal
There’s a lot to like about Mike Neal. He finally looked like a solid contributor last season, after the Packers moved him from defensive end to outside linebacker. He played in all 16 games, with 10 starts, and tallied 47 tackles, 5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. The most impressive thing is he put up those numbers playing a new position. It stands to reason that he’ll only get better in his second season at outside linebacker.

The Packers obviously hope so. They gave Neal a two-year, $8 million contract this offseason, with $2.5 million guaranteed. It’s a small sample size, but Neal has looked better at outside linebacker than Perry.

A.J. Hawk
Sigh. A.J. Hawk will be getting plowed over by running backs, eaten up by blockers, getting burned in coverage and jumping on piles to increase his tackle stats just like they taught him at Ohio State for eternity. Or at least as long as Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson are around. Hawk isn’t, wasn’t and never will be a playmaking inside linebacker. He’s just a guy. A guy whose legs would have to fall off before the Packers would take him out of the starting lineup. And then, they’d probably still roll him out there in one of those carts they give to dogs that are missing their back legs.

Brad Jones
You know, we may very well be dreaming (or hoping), but there have been indications that Jones isn’t guaranteed a starting spot this year. It would be quite the departure from the norm for the Packers to go with a young guy instead of a mediocre veteran at inside linebacker, but hope springs eternal.

Anyway, the Packers gave Jones a nice, big contract after the 2012 season. That was his first year as a mediocre starter, so why not reward him for his awesome mediocrity, right? Right. So Jones came out in 2013 and was again awesomely mediocre. He had 84 tackles, 3 sacks and a forced fumble in the 12 games we was able to play. Not awful, but I challenge you to name one big play Jones has made, ever.

Jamari Lattimore
Nice transition, huh? Lattimore started when Jones was injured last year. He turned in a number of big plays. Despite that, he went right back to the bench when Jones returned. Why? Because the Packers cannot have their inside linebackers out there making plays! That wouldn’t be Packers football!

Lattimore totaled 35 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble in 2013. He also blocked a punt. Yeah, that was a special teams play, but when is the last time the Packers had a guy block a punt? I don’t know and neither do you, which means it’s been a long-ass time. A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones couldn’t block a punt if you were kicking the ball and your wife was blocking.

Now, we realize there are some other guys we’re not mentioning here — Child Warrior Andy Mulumba; 2013 draft picks Sam Barrington and Nate Palmer; and 2014 fourth-round pick Carl Bradford, for example.

Frankly, we don’t feel like any of those guys will be given a legitimate chance to be a starter. So…

Who wins?
For the spot opposite Clay Matthews, we like Mike Neal. That means Julius Peppers spends the majority of his time on the defensive line. If Neal continues to improve, and there’s no reason to think he won’t, the Packers simply have to put him on the field.

In the middle, you’re getting another season of A.J. Hawk because the Green Bay Packers hate you. And as much as we hate to say it, we’re going to assume Brad Jones is the other starter.

History tells us Mike McCarthy simply will not go with the younger, more talented player at inside linebacker. Ever. He values the steady, mediocre play of the veteran every time. We’d like to think this year would be different, but can’t realistically believe it will.

The most interesting guy to watch may very well be Perry. With Peppers and Neal, there aren’t a lot of snaps left. Do the Packers try Perry at defensive end? Do they let him rot away on the bench? Do they try to force him into the lineup because he was a first-round pick? Or do they give up on the guy after two seasons?

About The Author

Monty McMahon is one of the founders of Total Packers. He is probably the most famous graduate of UW-Oshkosh next to Jim Gantner.

15 Comments on "2014 Packers Training Camp Battles: Linebackers"

  1. Archer

    Nice article…well done! Would love to see Lattimore emerge from the pile – maybe last year will give him the experience to make the jump. Wishful thinking, I know…we are still feeling the aftermath of losing Desmond Bishop to injury.

  2. Asimov

    I’m curious about Perry’s ability to play in the middle. He has the size to take on blockers and backs. He’s shown quickness, but does he have the speed to cover?

  3. kato

    The problem with lattimore that everyone likes to ignore is he was out of position and hurt his team more than his “flash plays.” Everyone likes flash, but let’s be honest, this defense has enough playmakers that they don’t need flash players at mlb. Most teams that run the 3-4 don’t have mlb that big playmakers. Most of the time its the olb and dB’s making the big plays

  4. jimbo

    Actually Jones played pretty well in 2012 injuries played a role last year. As for Lattimore he was responsible for more blown plays than any LB, they couldn’t wait to replace him. To even say the Packers wont play more talented young players is a joke. They started a Rookie at LT.

    • Kristofer

      In the case of the rookie at LT last season was because Mike McCarthy was forced to play a rookie; If you think about it, Marshall Newhouse was the only one waiting in the wings besides that rookie… so… yeah, they were forced to play #69 David Bakhtiari. And thank goodness sakes for that forced start, the kid is a baller who is only going to get better.

  5. kato

    The cornerback position, clay Matthews, and mike daniels to name a few. They have good supporting talent all over the field. You can’t realistically expect a team to have studs all over the field. Simply not going to happen in today’s NFL. With a little bit of luck in the health department and with the change in philosophy on the defensive side of the ball along with player development this team will be just fine

    Keep in mind how many key contributors missed time last year. Hayward and his 6 ints from the year before. Matthews missed significant time. Perry played with a broken foot likely hampering his effectiveness. Everyone is acting like this staff has no clue what they are doing. If lattimore is the better player, he would be playing. If these guys didn’t know what was going on, they would have never won a super bowl.

    • Archer

      Ah, the old “injuries and remember what they did in 2010 argument”. E. Wolf, is that you?

      Not sure Daniels is exactly a playmaker yet – although I like him. Williams/Shields had 5 picks combined in the 2013 regular season. Combine that with zero turnovers from the safety spot and that is pretty awful for our defensive backs. These stats don’t exactly scream “playmaker” .

      Again, besides Clay Matthews (when he is healthy which is virtually never) who are the playmakers on this defense that you described?

      • Kato

        Hayward is returning as well, and will help that corner group. While I am not as sold on Micah Hyde as some people are, I think he is solid, and has the chance to play all over the field and and make defenses account for him. Julius Peppers presence will also make a large difference. Lets just wait and see what happens with Ha Ha Clinton Dix, I think he could be real good. Plus Aaron Rodgers presence helps the defense as well. More sustained drives giving the defense breathers, as well as more leads, making opposing offenses more one dimensional allowing the pass rush to tee off. Playing with a lead is this defenses strength based on the pass rushing personnel and the ball hawks in the secondary (the safety group will be better this year). While the defense does worry me a bit more in closer games, I think the run defense will be at least a bit better this year with Raji returning to nose and the safety play against the run should be better as Hyde/Clinton Dix are both solid in run support.

        • Archer

          I hope you are right…I really, REALLY hope you are right as my liver can’t take much more bad defense. I was just thinking that we can do better than Hawk and Jones at MLB and am hoeful one of the other gents emerges in camp as a clear cut starter.

          • Kato

            Never said they couldn’t do better. Just think they are serviceable enough. If you look at any team in the nfl, they have players in positions that they can improve upon. By the way, my liver cannot take another bad defense either. Otherwise my work will be looking to replace a deceased employee come December.

  6. Shawn iltarion

    In the 2nd biggest game of the year, against the Bears, Lattimore looked completely lost and blew some plays.

    Hard to argue with having AJ Hawk at MLB when he is the only player on the entire defense that can stay healthy. I would love to see him replaced if there is someone better who can stay healthy to do it, but I’m not sure that person is on this roster. I liked what I saw from Sam Barrington last season, until he got injured, but he doesn’t have great size for that position.

    Brad Jones basically got the same type of contract that Mike Neal just got. Switched positions, had one good season, and got paid for a few years. Obviously, the Packers are hoping he improves at his position just like they hope Mike Neal will. Unfortunately, last season wasn’t the first time Jones was injured. It is like a broken record on the defensive side of the ball.

    Nick Perry is the best edge setter against the run at OLB that the Packers have. The Packers’ run defense suffered mightily when he got injured. This is a huge season for Perry. If he fails to be a starter all season or gets injured again, his days will be clearly numbered.

  7. Phatgzus

    You must have missed the Ravens game, the rest of the first third of the season, and the Thanksgiving Day Massacre (although you may have been hammered off your ass, I sure was), Monty, because Nick Perry sure showed a helluva lot of ability in those games. 3 FF in any season is pretty great, considering he did that in 11 games (about 5 in which he was relatively healthy), that shows some play-making ability and something to be hopeful for. Now we just have to hope he’s not another Chhina doll at OLB.

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