Much is being made of the Green Bay Packers linebacker situation this offseason.
The transition to the 3-4 defense of Dom Capers has forced several Packers’ players to make position changes, and it has left the two outside linebacker spots up for grabs in training camp.
Although I would hardly suggest the Packers are set in the middle, Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk have been penciled in as the starters.
Barnett, of course, is coming off a season in which he tore a ligament in his right knee and played in only nine games. By most accounts, Barnett is progressing nicely in his return.
Hawk is another matter entirely. Can anyone say bust? I can – here, let me use it in a sentence: A.J. Hawk, like most Ohio State linebackers before him, has been a bust in the NFL.
I know some people will jump on me for saying so, but consider: Hawk was selected fifth overall by the Packers in 2006, he has played three full seasons as a starter, his tackle total has decreased in each season (to a low of 86 last season), and he has made zero Pro Bowls.
2008, when he should have stepped up to fill Barnett’s shoes, was by far Hawk’s weakest season, which strongly suggests he isn’t the top-flight linebacker the Packers thought he was when they drafted him. Still, for better or worse, Hawk is a starter on the inside, and will get at least one more season to prove himself with the Packers.
The outside is far from settled, however.
Aaron Kampman, who is moving from defensive end, is being projected as the starter on the left side. Kampman hasn’t said peep about the position switch, which leads us to believe that he is A. uncomfortable with it, B. ticked off at the coaching staff for making the change, or C. all of the above.
While Kampman has his jaw wired shut, Barnett spoke up for the Packers top sack man today via his Twitter stream, saying “Kampman is looking good as well playing outside. Still has things to work like everyone else but so far pretty good”
If you follow Barnett on Twitter (@NickBarnett), you’ll notice that he didn’t major in English at Oregon State. But that’s because he majored in NFL, fool!
Right now, the insurance policy behind Kampman appears to be Brady Poppinga, who put up an unspectacular 69 tackles and zero sacks last season. Poppinga was also a huge liability in coverage, but, as the Press Gazette’s Tom Pelissero pointed out today on the Insider’s Blog, “The nature of the scheme might make Poppinga a better fit on the left side, since he has some run-stopping and pass-rushing ability but never has been good in coverage.”
Despite Kampman’s offseason douchebaggery, we fully expect him to win the left outside linebacker spot, and we also expect the Packers coaches to give him every chance to do so.
The Packers right outside linebacker spot seems to be a little bit more up in the air.
During the NFL Draft, most of us thought the Packers picked their starter for the next 10 years when they traded up into the latter half of the first round to select USC’s Clay Matthews. We all rejoiced – no more Brady Poppinga!
One thing we didn’t consider is someone else might emerge at the position. At least in the early going, that someone else is Jeremy Thompson.
Jeremy Thompson, whom GM Ted Thompson moved up into the fourth round to select last year, is entering his second year with the Packers. The former Wake Forest defensive end is said to be one of the players benefiting most from the switch to the 3-4, and looks to be a legitimate challenger to Matthews on the right side.
Although Matthews suffered a hamstring injury on the first day of OTAs, Thompson was already lining up with the Packers defensive starters. Thompson is accustomed to dropping into coverage, which defensive ends did regularly at Wake Forest, and seems to have put in as much offseason work as anyone.
Packers linebackers coach Kevin Greene has raved about him.
Thompson has spent hours with new outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene, who played the position under Capers. When asked last week which players stood out, the first name Greene mentioned was Thompson’s. Greene raved about his athletic ability.
Greene also believes Thompson will be better suited to play the right outside spot rather than the left, where he was slated to line up as Kampman’s backup.
“He’s left-handed, so generally speaking, a left-handed guy will be more productive rushing the passer from the defensive right side, using his dominant left hand,” Greene said. “So goes the theory.”
In addition to Thompson, the Packers have decent, if unspectacular, players in Brandon Chillar (who unlike Poppinga is NOT a liability in coverage) and Desmond Bishop, who will most likely be in the mix as backups.
Competition for positions can only make the Packers defense stronger and this will be a fun one to watch. If he isn’t careful, Poppinga and his $1.9 million salary may end up out on the street.