As the Green Bay Packers training camp begins to heat up, it’s becoming more apparent where the interesting positional battles are going to take place, and in some cases, they aren’t where we thought they would take place.
Since the Packers have put their pads on, some players who performed well in OTAs have fallen back. Others have continued to show improvement. The second positional battle we’ll take a look at is inside linebacker.
Click here for our look at the tight end position.
It seemed a forgone conclusion coming into training camp that the Packers starting inside linebackers would be Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk. However, Barnett still hasn’t seen the field after failing his physical at the start of training camp. He’s been relegated to the physically unable to perform list after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery last season.
While Barnett hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do in defensive coordinator Dom Capers 3-4 defense, Hawk seems to be back to his mediocre ways. While his dedication and commitment have never been questions, Hawk just doesn’t seem to be anything more than an average NFL linebacker (like most great Ohio State linebackers before him).
Hawk isn’t strong in coverage and hasn’t shown an ability to shed blockers and get to the ball. Simply, he isn’t a playmaker.
Brandon Chillar, on the other hand, is having an outstanding training camp. The Green Bay Press Gazette’s Pete Dougherty says Chillar is a perfect fit for the 3-4.
The change to the 3-4 appears to have helped Chillar, whose linear build (6-foot-3, 237 pounds) and quickness help make him the best blitzer among the inside linebackers. He was borderline dominant in one-on-one blitzing drills against running backs Sunday night (8/2).
Chillar is the Packers’ best cover linebacker, and Capers covets that kind of rush-and-cover versatility to disguise which of the four linebackers are going to rush the quarterback on any given snap.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy also offered praise for Chillar in yesterday’s press conference.
You could make an argument that Brandon Chillar is our most productive linebacker to this point in training camp. He seems very natural in the pressure packages, both base and sub. He’s someone that can play a number of different positions and can give us flexibility in our coverage schemes. Another instinctive football player, has excellent range.
Another player factoring into the equation is Desmond Bishop, who also seems to be benefiting from the Packers switch the 3-4.
While it’s unlikely Bishop will unseat either of the current No. 1’s, it looks like he will be getting a healthy dose of playing time when the season begins. The Journal Sentinel’s Greg A. Bedard suggests that like Chillar, Bishop has shown the big play ability Hawk lacks.
At the “Buck” (middle linebacker), A.J. Hawk is technically sound, but the 2006 fifth overall pick has yet to show any type of big-play ability. Desmond Bishop is the opposite: He has lived in the offensive backfield during training camp but can get out of position on occasion.
McCarthy noted Bishop’s improvement yesterday, as well.
I think everybody recognizes the fact that he is an exceptional pressure player. He seems very comfortable in our scheme. I think he has improved the coverage part of it. For him playing in the old scheme probably helped him as far as the training he had in that particular area. Playing with vision for Desmond Bishop, he is a very instinctive football player.
So what in God’s name does all of this mean for the Packers? Well, a number of things.
First, Hawk’s reign as a starter could be in real jeopardy if Chillar and Bishop keep looking as good as they have thus far in training camp.
Second, Barnett may start the season on the bench and be eased back into the lineup. Although he’s been present for the entire offseason program, Barnett hasn’t seen any live action yet. Even when he does, it will take him some time to regain confidence in his surgically repaired knee and to fully grasp the system. The play of Chillar and Bishop give the Packers options, and ensures the team doesn’t have to rush Barnett back onto the field.
Third, is the chance that Barnett isn’t the same player when he comes back. Let’s not forget that Barnett was having a terrible season last year before he got hurt. While I would still consider him a better playmaker than Hawk, Barnett was never great in coverage (4th and 26, anyone?), and there’s a chance his knee injury could deprive him of the speed and confidence he demonstrated early in his Packers’ career – those things that made him a great tackler.
Finally, is the possibility the Packers will use situational substitutions with all four linebackers. Hawk and Barnett play on running downs and Chillar and Bishop play on passing downs, which plays to each players’ supposed strengths – getting to the ball and tackling for Barnett and Hawk, and coverage and blitzing for Chillar and Bishop.
Looking at these four linebackers and their abilities as suited to the 3-4, I would put A.J. Hawk at the back of the pack. However, given that he was once the fifth overall choice in the NFL Draft, I suspect the Packers will give him the benefit of the doubt once again, at least to start the season.
Total Packers prediction: Barnett and Hawk start by default, but Chillar ends the season as a starter in place of Hawk. All four inside linebackers see playing time as their skills dictate.
I lean towards Hawk as a bust – though he is at least above average. Justin Harrell on the other hand, who is again out with back problems, is a catastrophe. An epic misfire on the part of Ted Thompson.